Monday, 12 May 2014

Military Memories 12: Food, Weather & Beds

Military Memories: 31 Writing Prompts to Celebrate Your Military AncestorsMembers of GeneaBloggers are invited to commemorate their military ancestors during  May 2014 by participating in  Military Memories: 31 writing prompts,  created by author Jennifer Holik. 

Today's theme - Overseas Service - Wartime Living Conditions    


Harry Rawcliffe Danson ((1912-2001) was my uncle on my mother's side of the family from Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire. His middle name came from his grandmother Maria Danson, nee Rawcliffe. 

 In this photograph I think there is an Errol Flynn look about him!

This is a story not of food privations but of an army  Christmas meal in France in 1939. 

This signed menu of December 25th 1939,   written in French and typed on flimsy paper,  was found amongst the papers of my Uncle Harry.  He was in France with the British Expeditionary Force, 9/17th Field Battery.  In the Sergeant's Mess,  breakfast was cold ham with piccalilli, eggs, coffee and roll and butter;  for dinner  - turkey with chestnuts, pork with apple sauce, potatoes, and cauliflower followed by Christmas pudding, apples, oranges, and nuts, with cognac, rum and beer.  

Five months later Harry was one of the many men evacuated from Dunkirk, saved by the flotilla of small ships.  Sadly many of the men who were at this meal may not have survived.   
Harry  arrived back home from Dunkirk  still in the uniform in which he entered the sea to be rescued.   He never talked about his wartime experiences, but seeing commemoration services or documentaries on TV could bring tears to his eyes, so the memories remained   very strong   He later served in North Africa.

My Dad, John Weston, served in the RAF, in a Special Liaison Unit, Codes and Ciphers Branch.  He wrote down his war memories for me, beginning here in 1944 after a D Day when he was attached to American forces.   Here are some of his accounts of the food and living conditions.

"We made our way to a little village near a copse – Laval. It had rained heavily and became very humid. In a clearing the GIs had set up trestle tables to hand out meals. We had portioned trays, but the Americans just had billycans to hold the meal of chicken and peaches. There were millions of wasps committing suicide in the fruit juice.

That first night I slept in a PUP tent (one man), but during the night it poured down and around 2a.m. my tent was flooded and my sleeping bag was in two inches of water. There was a lot of thunder and some animals around went berserk. I managed to sort myself out and was on duty the next day at get our equipment organized. I had a brief time off and went into the village. I saw some small bottles of brandy in a shop – and not much else, so I bought the lot (16 bottles) – they cost around 1/8 (under current 10p.) a bottle!"

In a letter home dated 27th August 1944,   Dad wrote "At the moment I am endeavoring to dry my blankets and clothes.  Last night  or rather early this morning we had a terrific storm  and before very long I was living in an inch of water.  Part  of the tent caved in and since I was sleeping on my ground sheet,  it was not long before I was thoroughly soaked through.    Several of the lads have beds and they were all right.  However there are good prospects of obtaining a bed tomorrow so I hope it materialises.  i have never seen such lightening and with it being only 3am it showed up  much more against the black sky.  

We went through Le Mans, Chartre to Versailles - very little damage.  We set up shop there and we had a good hotel with peaches growing outside my bedroom window, but I could not reach them."

In a typed letter home  franked 25th September 1944 Dad wrote: "In this particular place there is no Red Cross canteen, but a cinema is running that is crowded each night. You can go to the cinema, stay in and write letters or  simply go to bed now that the nights are drawing in.  There is no pleasure in going out, more so in France everyone seems to go to bed around 9pn as the lights are only on a very short time each evening.  We have made our quarters fairly comfortable, with wardrobes and sundry fixtures which incidentally German troops had used before us".

 Conditions were much tougher once the troops moved north through Luxembourg.

"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 code books 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.  

These stories of my family's military service have featured before on my blog.
But I am pleased to take this different approach suggested by Jennifer
and am proud to join in this challenge.  

Copyright © 2014 · Susan Donaldson.  All Rights Reserved

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