Warwick in World War II

Some anecdotes from the archives.

The 70th anniversary of VE-Day (May 8th 1945) was commemorated and celebrated in Warwick with a forties dance and supper in the Court House Ballroom. (See past events). At the start of the evening, the Unlocking Warwick volunteers read out some brief extracts of personal stories from the local archives with descriptions of events taken from editions of The Warwick Advertiser.

Here is the script of that presentation of some Warwick Stories from World War II.

Narrator 1: It is early May 1945, and – along with the rest of the country – Warwick is about to celebrate Victory in Europe, bringing to an end 6 years of war, which has seen death, suffering, and destruction across the world on an unprecedented scale.

Narrator 2: Warwick had not been a primary target for the Luftwaffe, but played its part in the fight against Fascism. Many Warwickshire men were recruited and trained at Budbrooke Barracks.  Families here took in hundreds of evacuees from Birmingham, Coventry and London.  Tony Talliss was 5 years old when the war began.  He recorded his memories for the BBC’s ‘People’s War’ archive.

Tony Talliss: “There was an Italian prisoner of war camp on the racecourse; they wore a yellow circle on the back of their brown jackets. There was a German P.O.W. camp at the corner of Myton Road and Banbury Road, where the prep school is today. At the outbreak of war my two girl cousins from Kent came as evacuees to my grandparents in Millers Road. In 1940, when no bombing had occurred at all, they returned home. They were soon back when the raids started! and stayed until 1945. Westgate Arch was sandbagged as a shelter and trenches were dug in St. Lawrence Avenue”.

Narrator 1: After the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, when the Germans had failed to defeat the Royal Air Force, mass bombing raids on our cities became the new German tactic designed to force Britain into surrender – the blitz!  ]

Narrator 1: On the evening of November 14th that year, the target was Coventry, eleven miles to the north of here. People in Warwick could hear in the distance that an enormous raid was taking place.

Narrator 2: The Nazis called it ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata’. More than 500 bombers dropped thirty-six thousand incendiary bombs and five-hundred tonnes of high explosives on Coventry city centre, most of which was destroyed – including the medieval cathedral. Nearly 600 people lost their lives that night.

Narrator 1: During the blitz, the Lockheed factory at Leamington was bombed three times, and Warwick didn’t escape entirely unscathed, as local resident Patrick Rafferty recalled.

Rafferty: “My grandfather Harry Marston, serving in the Royal Warwickshire regiment, had survived the Battle of the Somme in the 1914-18 conflict.  But he became a rare casualty of enemy action in Warwick during the Second World War. Harry, by then a reservist, was walking home on St. Mary’s common in May 1941 when a German aircraft dropped a stray stick of bombs. He was killed instantly along with his friend, James Height. Both are commemorated on the war memorial in Church Street”.

Narrator 2: But by May 1945 it was clear that the end was in sight. On this very day 70 years ago, German radio announced that Hitler was dead. Soon the German forces in Berlin had surrendered to the Russians, to be followed by the surrender to Montgomery of a million Axis troops in north-west Europe.

Narrator 1: On May 8th news came through that all German forces had capitulated, and celebrations broke out across Europe and America. It’s said that the whole population of Britain gathered round their radios to hear the King overcome his stammer to announce the victory.

[Extract of the King’ radio broadcast]: “We give thanks to Almighty God for a great deliverance. Speaking from our Empire’s oldest capital city, a war-battered, but never for one moment daunted or dismayed, speaking from London, I ask you to join with me in that act of Thanksgiving. Germany – the enemy who drove all Europe into war – has been finally overcome”.

Narrator 1: The people of Warwick needed no second invitation to join-in with the celebrations. The Town Clerk had already announced the plans in the local paper.

Advertiser: The Mayor has requested that we make our ancient town as gay as possible on the great day. After the church bells have announced Victory in Europe, there will be a service in St. Mary’s, and the church will be floodlit!  In the following days there will be a non-denominational service in the castle courtyard, a church parade and a march past. An open-air dance will be held in St. Nicholas Park.   On behalf of the licensees of the town, at a special meeting of the Warwick Magistrates in the Court House, Mr. Mellor made application for an extension of licensing hours from 10.30 to 11.30 on the evening of VE Day. The application was granted!

Narrator 2: According to the local paper, The Advertiser, “Warwick accepted the glad tidings with commendable calm”.

Advertiser: There was little of the hysteria here that one reads of in the big cities. Yet Victory-Day worked a wonderful transformation in the county town. From heaven knows where, flags and bunting and streamers and ribbon appeared and almost hid the familiar landmarks from view. Cycles, prams, cars, buses – everything on wheels had some adornment. The Post Office, which is not on wheels, had none.

Photo of a street party in 1945Narrator 2: And then the street parties!  All over Warwick. The Advertiser called it ‘an epidemic’ and apologised to readers for not being able to report them all. The party in Paradise Street was reported, probably because it was visited by the Mayor. Despite rationing, it was made possible by many ‘willing housewives’ who donated their ration ‘points’.

Resident: “We made cakes, jellies and other niceties which are so appealing to children. Music was provided by a piano played by one of our soldiers. And we must pay tribute to those neighbours who parked their cars at each end of the street, and illuminated the dance floor with their car headlights”.

Narrator 1: There was a huge crowd in the Market Square for a United Act of Thanksgiving attended by the Mayor and Corporation, the clergy and the Servicemen.  The Vicar, Canon Littler, sought to capture the mood and appealed for unity.
Canon Littler    “We don’t all agree how the New World should be built, but we all want a New World to be built. Can we win the Peace, the Peace that has been won for us? It depends on you: the people. If ever you see any public man, of any party, adopting a policy which appears likely to disturb the unity of this country, sweep him out of public life for ever!”

Narrator 2: And the Warwick Advertiser also sought to capture the mood of excitement and celebration as a party in the Market Square continued well after midnight.

Advertiser: Men and women of the Services wheeled and turned and accomplished all manner of acrobatics that pass for dancing among your moderns.   How the young girls laughed and preened themselves in the floodlight and flirted discreetly in the shadows!   Midnight struck and I observed the older folk walking wistfully homeward, no doubt dwelling on the past, supremely content with the present, and I suppose not a little hopeful for the future. I returned to the music and the dancers, and stood aloof while maidens young and old seized the first male within reach for a few whirling dance steps – and usually it was that undefeated irrepressible great gentleman in khaki, the British Tommy.