River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Memories of the 1940's Part 4

September 2014

MEMORIES OF THE 1940s Part 4

After the war was over and the initial euphoria had died down people began to realize that we were broke and in a mess with an enormous rebuilding and resettlement task, but there was optimism and enthusiasm, at least from the young.  We had a new Labour government, many new ministers had been ministers in the previous coalition and they  continued to act in the dictatorial way they had used during the war and  the public were conditioned to accepting directives.  This enabled the government to make rapid strides.  Over 200,000 homes had been destroyed  in London, there was an acute housing shortage.  Prefab houses sprung up all over the place, we were told that they were expected to last for ten years, but some were in use for many more years.  They were very popular with those seen as lucky enough to be allocated one.  New towns were  being planned around London, and by the end of the 1940s tower blocks  were rising on many of the areas devastated by the bombing and on many  areas of slum clearance.  These too were quite popular, they were modern flats with modern kitchens and bathrooms, novelties for some of the  tenants.  We got the NHS.  New car models were coming off the production lines, but they were mostly for export, those with urgent need, such as GPs, got priority, but ordinary purchasers had to go on a waiting list  and could wait two or more years to get their new car.  Exporting our  goods was deemed as essential to pay off the debt.  Taxes were crippling, income tax going up to 19s 6d in the pound (about 97% for very high incomes).  Nevertheless it was a brave new and exciting world, or so it seemed to me.  People were sure that we were building a much  fairer and more just society than had existed before the war.  Women were re-asserting their feminism and enjoying the return of fashion, the ‘New Look’ was a sensation.  There was a spirit of optimism as more normal peacetime activities slowly re-appeared.  New London shows by Irving Berlin and Rogers and Hammerstein were drawing the crowds. But the winter of 1945/46 was rather harsh but nothing to what was to come for the winter of 1946/47.  From January 24 1947 to March 16 snow fell every day, temperatures plummeted to the point where the Thames froze and the sea froze along the east coast.  Coal was king, by far the majority of homes were heated by an open fire, usually burning coal, all the electricity power stations burned coal, gas was produced from coal.   Much of the coal came from the north-east, usually by boat, but the ports were blocked with ice and roads and railways rendered impassable by snow.   People were freezing in their own homes scrounging for anything to burn on their fires, long power cuts were frequent, gas  pressure was reduced to near dangerous levels and schools were closed.   Spirits sank somewhat, elderly people died from the cold.  For us youngsters it wasn’t all bad, we enjoyed some memorable tobogganing on Streatham common. When the thaw came vast areas were flooded, many people suffered in that winter to a greater extent than they did during the war. As an occupying power we were required to provide for the German population in the British Zone, almost one third of Germany.   Immediately after the war the German population were near to starving  and this had been a huge logistics problem.  The British Army of the Rhine was a very large force and this was kept on, partly because of the  new fear of the Soviet Union, it was a big drain on our resources and it  was income for the Germans.  The Americans were keen to see Western Europe rebuilt quickly and provided considerable aid through the Marshall Plan.  The net result was that new industry was developing rapidly in Germany with new factories.  We soon learned that rations in Germany were more generous than we had.  This led to some resentment on  the home front. The Americans were not very sympathetic to the British position.  I am not sure why, although willing to lend us equipment they had been reluctant to join in the war - it was the Germans that had declared war on the USA - and they had made it clear that they expected to be fully repaid for the material help they had given us during the war, our  situation did become so acute, however, that they did provide a further  loan.  (The debt to the USA was not fully repaid until Gordon Brown was Chancellor.)  Part of the problem in US/UK relations at that time may have been due to Winston Churchill, he was always going on about the British Empire and he believed that after the war we would have the  Empire as it was before.  Roosevelt did not approve of the Empire and, I think, was determined to see it dismantled, a view apparently supported by his successor, President Johnson. (This is a retrospective personal view.)  I think the British public were quite ready to see Empire countries become independent.

Returning to my personal story:

Having joined the sixth form I remained uncertain as to my way forward.   I was told that the Ministry of Supply (now MoD) ran very good five year engineering apprenticeships.  Selection was by interview and examination run by the Civil Service Commission and I opted to go for that, my parents were happier, to their minds an apprenticeship was much more appropriate than talk of university.  I discovered that there were approximately 100 places available nationwide and that there were over  400 applicants.  I was successful, however, and when I learned that I  had got an apprenticeship, starting in September, I left school to the  disappointment and disgust of my school masters and looked for a job to  fill the gap before September.  I went to a firm producing sterilised milk and selling it to retail outlets, in those days TB in cattle was  fairly rife and some people preferred to have sterilised rather than  pasteurised milk.  I started as an office boy, but soon got bored with that, so transferred to working in the plant, removing the bottles from a conveyor, putting them in crates and loading crates onto lorries.   Then I went as driver’s mate and finally as a driver.  That was possibly the job that I enjoyed most in my working life, driving a 5ton flat truck Bedford round London, not that I would enjoy it now but at 17 I thought it was great. I opted to go to the Royal Ordnance Factories, ROF Woolwich, I could  have gone to any of a number of Ministry establishments, including RAE  Farnborough, National Gas Turbine Establishment, Fighting Vehicle Research  and Development Establishment,  and other Ordnance Factories.  At the  time the ROF at Woolwich had a worldwide reputation for engineering  excellence and offered a wider range of engineering experience, it was  also closest to London and was accessible from home (just) by bike. So I started in September with the grand wage of £1-17-6/week, joining  32 other engineering apprentices at Woolwich.   The Ordnance Factories occupied a vast site extending eastwards along the river to include a  proof firing range for the guns.  The main entrance was in Beresford Square, which was a mad mix of trams, buses, cars, trucks, a few horse and carts, pedestrians and hordes of cyclists.  Bicycle was the  principal means of transport of factory workers in the 1940s. Most days I cycled, a round trip of about 26miles, this was hard at times, especially in the rain after evening classes wearing a cape and cycling against a south-west wind.  I was already wishing that I had tried for a scholarship.  Cycling in the dark was also potentially  dangerous, much of the street lighting was of pre-war design and poor,  most cars were of pre-war design, headlights were miserable, rear lights  were generally a single dim glow, windscreen wipers were single speed  and often poor, there were no heaters to demist the windscreen and there  were no MoTs to ensure that brakes were effective.  My bike lights were powered by a dynamo driven by the wheel (this increased the drag disproportionately), as I climbed slowly up the hills (it was a very  hilly route) my lights were reduced to a glimmer.  Despite the relatively small number of cars there were many more road accidents than there are today but it is a miracle that there weren’t even more. My first year at Woolwich was spent in a training workshop, with specialist instructors and working alongside craft apprentices, learning to use hand tools, to weld and to use machine tools of all types.  It was a very good training.  Thereafter I was moved around the factory to various departments, I also spent time at RAE, FVRDE and a Weapons R&D  Establishment at FortHalstead in Kent.  There was day release for  college, it was policy that all engineering apprentices should obtain a  Higher National Diploma.  I also studied for the Intermediate BSc (rather like A level).  I did well with these studies and was  subsequently sponsored by the Ministry for a university degree course,  this was quite rare at a time when less than 5% of the population were  graduates.  And so I came to the end of the 1940s.

Postscript:   I got my degree and I was awarded an open ended post graduate scholarship by the Ministry.  I opted to use this to study gas turbines, at this time the UK led the world in jet engines and turboprops, and I studied with a good team at ImperialCollege,  including some of Whittle’s team.  With my ROF hat on I thought there could be a potential application for this type of engine in tanks and other heavy vehicles but I came to realize how difficult this would be.   Not until the current US super-tank, the M1 Abrams, was a gas turbine employed. I finally started work in my mid-twenties.  The knowledge and skills I  had acquired were more appropriate to the aero engine industry.   I went on to have a moderately successful career in industry and later in academia.

Ron Watts,  DIC, BSc(Eng), CEng, FIMechE, FRAeS

Copyright remains with independent content providers where specified, including but not limited to Village Pump contributors. All rights reserved.