My Great Aunt Norah's wartime diaries, 1938-1948
I have just received a lovely pair of hand knitted socks, from our Naval Base comfort fund. Seeing your name attached to them, I wish to convey my thanks and you can be assured the socks are much appreciated for warmth and use aboard this minesweeper.
I am taking Jim on trust and believing that he really did appreciate the socks Norah knitted; that his anxieties about how his mother and sisters were managing to making ends meet during the war didn’t lead him to unravel them and send the wool back home; that he didn’t give them to an older sailor, swapping them for a slipper of rum. I was reliably informed after my last post that both of these were common practice in the Navy; that the socks knitted so carefully by girls like Norah were appreciated for their quality but that more pressing needs prevailed. Not Jim. I have no reason to doubt him when he thanked Norah for the warm, well-made socks.
Norah’s diary, 27 February 1941: Received a letter from a minesweeper Jim Lowman H.M.S. Elgin.
Norah’s perfunctory diary entry contains no note of excitement, no sense of awe or pride stirred by the name of Jim’s ship, the one historically charged and image-laden detail that breaks through the brief formality of his letter. By the next evening, however, Norah has taken possession of Jim as her correspondent: wrote back to my minesweeper.
Two weeks’ later, in mid March, Jim writes again. The words “Smilin’ Through” again loop across the top left-hand corner of the first page. Still formal and polite, he expresses concern about the propriety of his letters in the eyes of Norah’s family; whether by writing to her he is ‘taking liberties’ that could cause ‘ill feeling’. It is clear that he is cautiously fishing here, hoping that Norah will divulge whether or not there is a boyfriend to offend.
Jim asks Norah about her schooling and her hobbies, and whether she has a snap she can send him. ‘Cheerio’, he writes, before adding, in a PS, that ‘only 1½ d stamp is required when writing to HM Ships’: she will be writing again.
Norah’s dairy, 1st March 1941: Received unexpected letter from my minesweeper. He enclosed a cap-band which I thought was grand.
Your letter has reached me at a time when things seemed dull and uninteresting, but thanks to you for raising my spirits from the depths of the sea to the heights of the heavens above.
Norah’s prompt and friendly replies soon encourage an easy familiarity. Jim tells her that he was a sailor before the war, having entered the Royal Naval Barracks at Portsmouth on 4th June 1937. He did his training – rifle drill, seamanship and more – and fulfilled his great ambition: to work with mechanical engines, turbines and dynamos. In July of that year he went aboard a submarine depot ship and was off to Malta, Yugoslavia, Greece, North Africa, Alexandria, Gibralter, Tangiers. Next, he was grafted aboard the destroyer HMS Antelope before joining his present ship, HMS Elgin.
Jim’s memory is etched with the precise date of joining the Navy at Portsmouth. The same is undoubtedly true of his early days in the town as a new recruit, the experience of which is beautifully evoked by W.J. Stonebridge in his piece for the BBC Peoples’ War website:
‘Getting to know the naval town … made me feel proud. The Royal Naval Barracks and the small streets leading to the dockyards. The naval shops full of badges and uniforms and everything nautical. I could not wait to get a uniform made to measure by one of the shops tailors. The hostels that never seemed to shut always there to provide a drink and a chair to sit and rest. The wonderful Salvation Army, The Sailors Rest, names that instantly come to mind. Going through those Dockyard gates and knowing the history that surrounded you. Seeing the grey painted warships up close. The destroyers tied up to the jetty walls. Ships in dry-dock for repair or for painting. All the hustle and bustle of a working Dockyard with naval officers and ratings going about their duties. The dockyard workers in their boiler suits and caps all seemingly busy and going about their work. I was a part of all this now, belonging to one of the grey painted destroyers with a letter followed by two numbers painted on her side.’
By the 1940s, the stoker’s job in many ships’ engine rooms was no longer particularly dirty work. On the Elgin, however, built during the Great War and still powered by coal-fired boilers, Jim worked with coal and a shovel rather than oil fuel valves. He wrote his letters in the cramped stoker’s mess, reached by descending an iron ladder. He might lie in his hammock, strung across and suspended from the beams, struggling to prop himself up on one elbow. Or he might use his locker, just outside the mess, as a seat, leaning forward onto a small table to write his letters. This is where he would eat – corned beef, mashed potatoes and peas, maybe – and where he would struggle to get into a comfortable position on the hard surface and too-small cushions on the nights he was on watch.
Jim tells Norah about his large and loving family who hailed from south London but who had moved to the Sussex coast some years before the war. His father, a locomotive depot chargeman, is an Air Raid Warden and in the Home Guard. He has two sisters and four brothers, the older lads spread across the RAF, Armoured Corps and the Airforce Cadets. His youngest brother is a scholarship boy at Eastbourne grammar school. Jim neglected his own education, he says, due to his fondness for sport and left school at the age of twelve. ‘I am the poorest scholar in my family,’ he writes, ‘and every time I come in contact with my grammar school brother he gets me on a spelling B. This was his last one. “It is painful to witness the embarrassment of a harassed pedlar gauging the symmetry of a peeled potato.” I made one mistake, put one m in symmetry.’ Although the family sound remarkably similar to Norah’s own, Jim is aware that she may be a border at her posh school; that she may be from a more well-to-do background than he. He wants her to know that despite his lack of formal schooling, he is not daft; just one mistake is pretty impressive.
I can’t help but note Jim’s errant apostrophe esses: engine’s, turbine’s, dynamo’s. I note also that Norah, a confident letter writer who in her later years was given to correcting errors in correspondence from family members, generously makes no mention of them. When transcribing his letters, I begin by using the historian’s ‘[sic]’ to denote an error existing in the original. I then decide against this: it feels snooty and it spoils the freshness of his prose.
What does Norah say in her letters? I am interested in how much we can learn about her from the details in Jim’s replies where it is clear he is responding to news about her own life. This will become especially relevant later on, when there are matters of morality at stake. For now, they are getting acquainted, sharing their interests in film, books and sport, alongside some family news.
We can deduce from Jim’s replies, for example, that Norah tells him at the end of March that she has become an aunty for the first time. In the dead of night on 26th March – although not, as family mythology tells us, with a backdrop of bombs falling over Nottingham to the northeast – Norah’s elder sister Helen walked up from Hemington, through the darkness of Lady’s Close, in the early stages of labour, to give birth to my mum under Marsie’s anxious eye. ‘When I got up that morning’, Norah would tell us in her sing-song voice, ‘Ma whispered to be quiet as Helen was having the baby, and when I came home from school, there you were!’
26th March. Helen had a little baby girl at 2.05pm in the afternoon. Chloroformed. The baby is beautiful.
28th: ‘The Tempest’. Received long awaited letter from Jim. Returned off leave. Two beautiful snaps of him & one of brother Danny in RAF.
29th: Baby is to be called Jean Ann. Went to tea at Lockington & then pictures with Margaret. Gary Cooper in ‘Beau Geste’. Good.
Jim is enthusiastic: he approves of the baby’s name but is quick to convey his own preferences, to which he has clearly given some thought. If he had a daughter, he tells Norah, he’d call her Ivonne, spelled with an ‘I’.
Norah tells him of the films she has seen: a page at the back of her diary reveals that as well as Beau Geste, she saw Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, George Formby in It’s in the Air and No Time for Comedy starring James Stuart & Rosalind Russell, all in early 1941. Jim writes that he has also seen Balalaika and reveals, in a lengthy list, that he is partial to glamorous American actresses: Alice Faye, Gloria Jean, Deanna Durbin, Jean Muir, Madge Evans and Paulette Goddard are among his favourites. He is very fond of sentimental tunes and of Smilin Thro’, Student Prince, Sanctuary of the Heart ‘and all comic operas.’ He likes crosswords and reads Rider Haggard and Warwick Deeping. He follows boxing, football (he is an Arsenal fan) and cricket (‘cricket preferred when actually playing’). He likes listening to Vera Lynn, Evelyn Dall and Kitty Masters, and is ‘no lover of swing or dance jazz’.
Does Norah wonder if Jim is given to bluster when his claim to be a true football fan is compromised by the confession that he hadn’t heard of her team, Derby County? How could anyone not have heard of Derby County?! It is true that with the Baseball Ground given over to the military since October 1939, Derby had seen disappointingly little action of late. But even so. Surely he had known that the Rams had been in the First Division when war was declared? And what about outside-right Wilf Walsh, who had been signed that very season from Arsenal, his team?
You’ll have noticed I’ve blocked out ‘Jim’s’ personal details. It no doubt could be done more neatly but, with the help of my ten year-old daughter, I am still learning. I haven’t posted Jim’s photograph either, despite having a small pile sitting in front of me on my desk. A post on the ethical considerations that have led to these decisions will follow shortly.
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