My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
Perhaps my biggest regret about the missing 1940 diary is the absence of Norah’s report on the string of bombs that dropped on her home village of Castle Donington in August of that year: the small explosion in the vicarage paddock, the full incendiary ‘bread basket’ on the playing fields on Station Road and a blast on Bond Gate, the impact of which, local resident Margaret Lindner recalled, felt as if ‘our house had been lifted up and plonked back down again.'(1) In terms of physical proximity, this was the closest the war came to Norah, although as we’ll soon see, its emotional impact is another story.
In their attacks on the English East Midlands, the Germans could have been looking for any number of industrial and transportation sites: Stanton Iron Works, Crossley Premier Gas Engines, Chilwell Depot and its subsidiary at Donington Park, and Toton railway sidings, the largest in England.
But it was Rolls Royce at Derby that they really wanted.
Founded in 1906 by Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, Rolls Royce had made around half the engines used by the Allied Forces during the Great War. The Second World War saw the company, known locally as Royces, propelled into the big time. Their iconic Merlin aero engine, launched in 1935, powered a range of planes, including the Hawker Hurricane and Spitfire fighters that won the Battle of Britain, the Lancaster and Mosquito bombers and the American P-51 Mustangs, one of the most successful fighter aircraft of the war.
Except for one attack on the stores in July 1942, the Germans were unsuccessful in their quest for Royces. One remarkable reason for this – now get this – was because the main Rolls Royce site on Nightingale Road was a work of art. Derby portrait painter Ernest Townsend (1888-1944) had camouflaged the engine workshops, not in the usual army greys and greens, but to resemble a residential district. Sheds and stores became houses and roads, the water tower was a church and the big glass workshop a nonconformist chapel. Bruce Townsend told me that his father had removed part of the roof from his artist’s studio in Full Street to enable him to view his work in a true north light. He would drape pieces of painted canvas over his cardboard model of the Rolls Royce works and climb into the open space above to look down upon them with a pilot’s eye.(2)
I am very struck by this image, and by another: the decoy sites which, located in fields on the edges of the south Derbyshire villages of Ticknall, Diseworth, Aston-on-Trent, Swarkestone and Thulston, successfully lured German bombers away from Royces throughout the war. Known as ‘starfish sites’, they were designed by Colonel John Turner following a visit to Shepperton Film Studios and were built with plywood, lights, smoke and mirrors. Whilst in the daytime they resembled nothing more than fields of wires and wooden posts, by night they created ‘an Alice in Wonderland world of deception’ for German pilots unfamiliar with the terrain. A frustratingly elusive and unattributed website tells how
Lights were used to replicate the shape and movement of the distant city’s streets, while deliberate fires drew aircraft to drop their loads on what they believed to be blazing factories, already hit… For the success of the operation, it had to remain top secret so local villagers were kept in ignorance. Generators, wires and lights, trenches, oil and petrol lines controlled from command-posts hidden in hedges and ditches, were all kept under wraps.
German bombers were fooled on 8th-9th May 1940 into believing Rolls Royce was ablaze. Their correct calculations of the distance to Nottingham – thirteen miles to the east – took them away from the city centre and into the Belvoir Valley.
Rolls Royce as a work of art, the starfish sites like a necklace of fire and light strung south of Derby city: the academic historian’s need to explain rather than to show often conceals images such as these. We remove them from our writing, dismissing them as ‘too narrative’. Or maybe they are considered too singular by historians who conceive our craft as interpreting broader trends, making patterns from a selection of sources and images. As Matt Holbrooke has written in a thought-provoking blog post this week, his own focus on individual life-stories is born of a desire ‘to show how those lives have the capacity to enrich our understanding of the past.’ Can we make the same argument for images and snippets of stories?
For writers, such individual images stand alone; to follow them with a hefty wad of analysis is to spoil the powerful impression they make upon the senses. I am not suggesting that historians should stop analysing. But part of the joy and the challenge of writing a history book which sits outside of academic history and which draws on techniques from lifewriting and fiction has been my emerging appreciation of the role of the senses in historical understanding. Being guided through the process by a poet – being taught to read and write from scratch is how it sometimes feels – has been an enriching experience.
For poets, images which evoke a sensual experience are everything. As Liz Barrett writes in her blog,
Understanding the essence of something through our senses – exploring the taste, smell and touch of a thing – is a way of knowing familiar to poets. The senses are often the starting point of writing and frequently form the muscle of a poem.
Indeed, it is now an educational commonplace that understanding through the senses is the essence of learning. Schoolchildren are no longer treated as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge by an expert instructor and instead learn through doing. Likewise, in the world beyond academia, the appreciation of history is reliant less upon our detached academic analyses than the stories and images which bring it to life.(3) Are the senses a ‘way of knowing’ which is more embodied and concrete than linguistic ways of knowing, and therefore more engaging and memorable?
With concern, no doubt, for both morale and for concealing information from the enemy, the Derby Evening Telegraph didn’t provide details about the devastating bombing of Coventry in November 1940. But despite the distance (about 40 miles to the south west), Norah’s neighbours knew about the raids. Just down the hill from Moira Dale in Hemington, six year–old evacuee Geoffrey Abel was woken from his bed in the home of Stanley and Nancy Wheildon and led out into the darkness to stand on the railway bridge and watch the night sky on fire. Castle Donington local historian Delia Richards told me that this night now forms her earliest wartime memory: being held by her father in his arms, as he stood at the landing window and pointed to the distant orange glow that was Coventry ablaze.(4)
And finally: On the morning of the raid on the Rolls Royce stores on 27th July 1942, land girl Daisy Warren was cycling to work at a market garden in Hemington, when she heard a hum-hum-hum overhead. Minutes later, a grey plane with swastika markings passed directly in front of her, flying so low that she got a good view of the pilot and the crew inside. The Germans were following the railway line to Derby, keeping down to avoid the ack ack fire of the barrage balloons. Her boss, Mr Powdrill, had been watching from the gate: ‘I wish I’d got my gun, I wouldn’t have missed at that height. I’d have had a pop at him, the ruddy Gerry.’ The sirens started up and they heard the dull boom of the bombs in the distance. Mr Powdrill sent her home: his young worker had had enough excitement for one day. On her journey to work that morning, Daisy had passed a young woman who, feeling unwell, had decided to turn home rather than carry on to work at Royce’s. Her boyfriend continued to the factory, and was later reported to have been killed by the blast.(5)
Norah’s Diary, 27th July 1942: Germans bombed Royces. Syd Higgins among the dead.
I see now how so much is in the images. How the painted canvas that was Rolls Royce grabs my attention and fills me with admiration for Ernest Townsend’s artistic skill. How the starfish sites, reeking of petrol and smoke, confused the bombers in the night sky. A girl in a country lane, hearing a plane above, suddenly right up close with a swastika symbol and then the boyish German crew. An ageing farmer, shocked and furious, shouting from his gate. The hum-hum of the engine, the silence, sirens, ack ack fire and boom of the bombs. Two small children on a cold November night, one little more than a babe in her father’s warm arms, gazing uncomprehendingly at the fire in the night sky.
 At Home and Away, edited by Jeanne Carswell (Coalville Publishing, 1995), pp. 14-16.
 Conversation with Bruce Townsend, Castle Donington, August 2012.
 Work in heritage studies can be instructive in this respect. See for example, Nick Merriman, Beyond the Glass Case: the Past, the Heritage and the Public (Leicester, 1991) and Laurajane Smith, The Uses of Heritage (London, 2006).
 Conversation with Delia Richards, Castle Donington, August 2012
 At Home and Away, p. 21
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