That little piece of paper…
I had a strange sense of deja vu earlier this year when seeing pictures of Kofi Annan returning from discussions with Saddam Hussein – but I was quite surprised to read in the 1998 Whitaker’s Almanac recently that it is actually 60 years this year since Neville Chamberlain returned from the summit meeting with hitler in Munich. I had always assumed it was only weeks before the Second World War was declared in 1939!
I knew I’d seen pictures of him stepping off the plane proudly waving the piece of paper hitler had signed – ‘guaranteeing’ that in future all Anglo-German differences would be settled peacefully -saying: “I think it is Peace for our time”. But I was only a year old in 1938, so it must have been years later that I saw those pictures!
I remembered learning – in ‘O’ level history – that after the First World War the world’s leaders (especially the French) had been determined that Germany should never again be allowed to become strong enough to attempt ‘take-over’ bids on other countries, and that stringent penalties were imposed, both politically and economically, to try to ensure this.
There were some who warned of the dangers of humiliating the Germans so much that their frustration would again boil up into full-blown aggression, and by 1932 it was decided to ease the restrictions. But Austen Chamberlain, a former Foreign Secretary and Neville’s half-brother – warned in 1933 that Germany was “afflicted by this narrow, exclusive, aggressive spirit by which it is a crime to be in favour of peace and a crime to be a Jew”, and saying: “This is not a Germany to which we can afford to make concessions!”
however Neville Chamberlain, who had taken over as Prime Minister from Stanley Baldwin in 1937, was determined that peace should be kept at any price, so when hitler showed his intentions by progessing through Europe, he (Chamberlain) spent the summer of 1938 trying to ensure there would be a solution that would not involve force. When it became clear, after Munich, that hitler was saying one thing and doing another, Chamberlain felt betrayed.
On a personal level I was aware, as much as a small child ever could be, that something big was happening to our family life. At that age most of what happened to me was exciting – terrible to say so now. I remember enjoying moving about with my Dad when he’d joined the Army, and then, while he went to Dunkirk (and later East Africa), Mum and I went to live with my grandparents in Bristol.
I remember lying in bed at night and hearing the drone of the German bombers going overhead, making for Filton aerodrome or Avonmouth docks. When they came too close we had to go into the air raid shelters, and I really loved that!
I had two young uncles in the RAF, who often seemed to be home on leave. There were always plenty of people around, and even when we all had to move again – twice in quick succession because we had been bombed out – to me it was great fun!. The houses we’d been living in had caught the blast – but fortunately on both occasions we had been away.
The first time I can remember arriving home to see a fireman pulling my mother’s favourite dress (black crepe with large pink tulips all over it) out of the chimney – her wardrobe had been blown to bits, and although the house was still standing, and is to this day, the plaster had been blown off the walls and the windows blown out.
Just six weeks later the railway line behind our new home in the suburbs of Bristol was the target. By this time my grandfather thought we’d had enough and moved us 12 miles out into the country, to Chipping Sodbury. This is where we spent the rest of the war (and I eventually went to school).
My grandmother, a very bustling little lady, was always doing or joining something and making things. Both grandparents joined the church and chapel choirs, soo we quickly became part of the community. American servicemen stationed nearby made a great fuss of the local children. They put on a pantomime one year in the local school with a party afterwards – and I can remember one of them chuckling when I turned my nose up at a fish paste sandwich! (ungrateful little ‘so-and-so’ – obviously not as deprived as he’d thought!). Even with rationing I can never remember feeling hungry, so my mother and grandmother must have done a great juggling act with the meagre rations we were allocated – and the vegetables and fruit they were able to grow.
Queen Mary was staying with the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort at Badminton, not far from ‘Sodbury’, and we often saw her motorcycle outriders approaching and knew she would soon be driving by. Grandad would stand me on one of his old beer crates by the garage gates and wait with me while I waved a paper Union Flag until she’d gone by. Mum and I were walking into ‘Sodbury one day when we saw her car stop to pick up two soldiers who had been thumbing a lift! They must have had quite a surprise!
My grandfather, who had been gassed as a soldier in the First World War and had been left with a weak heart, survived just long enough after the war to see his sons and son-in-law return home safely – so the celebrations didn’t last long. I was just old enough by then to know that things would never be the same again.
When Chamberlain brought home that piece of paper in 1938, the history books tell us, he was at first a popular hero – then people began to criticise him for being too ready to appease hitler. But he had bought time, time for the country to complete the necessary re-armament. And to be sure the Dominions – Canada, Australia and New Zealand at least – would be ready to support us if we were asked to fight on two fronts, for it was becoming apparent that Japan was taking advantage of the situation in Europe to make its own expansion plans.
He had also given me, and everyone else of my generation, that extra year to grow up a little, he had given my Mum that extra year to have my Dad around, and for him to see me grow a little before he had to go away. I am very grateful for that!
So yes, I remember the war years of my childhood as good times. I realise now, of course, that had our family been less fortunate it would have been a very different story.
Will the children of this generation be able to look back in sixty years’ time and appreciate the diplomacy of Kofi Annan – safe in the knowledge that it brought a peaceful solution to todays troubles?