The stories behind the story
A poignant, heart-warming, Christmas tale of goodwill to all men as Bill Cheall recounts the last of his days in the Army in peacetime Germany.
Bill Cheall's published memoirs, which depict his Dunkirk exploits and much more. Between £10-£20.
Bill Cheall, far right, Corporal in charge of the East Lancs Regimental Police. Below the original prior to restoration and improvement. Note how the top of Bill's head has been photoshopped back into place with a bit of trickery!
FT Episode 24 – Christmas at War with Bill Cheall
More great unpublished history!
We didn't know where the Germans were”. "We were so tired after a few days, we had no more rations and little ammunition”. There was panic, there was chaos.
My mother usually managed to gather together an assortment of Christmas fare. Not for us any black market goods - immoral and too expensive. We did however sometimes receive American food parcels.
It's Christmas Eve, yes I'm 19 years old, yes I did think of home, so near and yet so far! Yes, a lump in throat, my first Christmas away from home! In London docks on a bitterly cold day, sleeting in the wind. No Father Christmas here!
At the beginning of December 1945, our company commander thought it would be good to give a Christmas party to about one hundred German children of about nine years of age.
Hello again. Today’s main story is a poignant, heart-warming Christmas tale of goodwill to all men as my Dad recounts the last of his days in the Army in peacetime Germany. The story’s set against the brutal backdrop of a war just ended – more on that in a minute.
I’m Paul Cheall, son of Bill Cheall, whose WWII memoirs have been published in both hard back and paper back by Pen and Sword – in FTFDTH. The aim of these podcasts is to give you the stories behind the story. You’ll hear first-hand memoirs and memories of veterans connected to Dad’s war in some way – and much more.
I’d like to wish a very warm WW2 welcome to you whether you’re listening for the first time (what a treat) or for the fourth time (what a treat!)
I’ve re-recorded this episode for various reasons and this version has more stories in which you won’t have heard before as well as some music which wasn’t available to me the first time I did the show.
Today, I’m covering a lifting tale about my Dad in Germany at the end of the war when he was Corporal in charge of the regimental police – have your tissues ready!
I’ll be telling the story behind a photo of him whilst stationed in Duisburg.
But you won’t need to be looking at the photo whilst you’re listening, especially if you’re driving in the outside lane of a motorway, or, come to think of it, the inside line – tut tut.
After Dad’s story I’ve got a few more Christmas at war stories to share
I’d like to give a quick plug for my show notes right here, cos I do try to put decent notes together for every show, particularly with the accompanying photographs. So if you don’t know what your favourite character looks like, take a quick look at the show notes at the web site so when you listen to them you can picture what that person looks like, who back in 1939-45 was just one of the saviours of our freedom today.
Take a shufty at Wilf Shaw, Captain Tom Woods and Fred Reynard, utter heroes of Dunkirk and Gallipoli – gulp - I’m getting shivers up my spine just thinking about what these men did.
And if you get a chance while you’re there, click on any adverts that catch your attention as they do raise a small amount of money for the show.
A quick bit of Feedback to share with you:
Sid White comes from Norfolk England, which means he lives in my own neck of the woods and not far from Claude Reynolds who was rear gunner in a Lancaster in WW2. Sid’s commenting on Claude’s adventures in episode 5 of the show.
Sid said on my Facebook page, “Excellent stuff, it's amazing to hear first-hand stories. And being from Norfolk myself, as Claude is, I was even more interested in his story”.
Thank you Sid – small world eh? It’s funny but we really don’t know who some of these people are that we might pass in the street and what amazing things have happened to them. If you’ve never listened to Coffee with Claude, look him up on episode 5 of the fighting through podcast. You’re in for a treat.
On with the show …
I want to start with rather a sad, cautionary tale about American Troopers in the battle of the Bulge. I’ve borrowed it with permission of Joel Stoppels Battlefield Tours Facebook page and I would recommend it for a good supply of stories, photos and movie clips about the second world war. Here goes:
Along the Allied front in the Ardennes, inexperienced American troops were overwhelmed by the fierceness of the sudden German attack, which took everyone by surprise on December 16, 1944. Lieutenant Tony Moody of the American 106th Division:
“First I was not afraid, but I was getting more and more afraid, it was the uncertainty. We didn't have a mission, we didn't know where the Germans were”. "We were so tired after a few days, we had no more rations and little ammunition”. There was panic, there was chaos. If you feel that you are surrounded by overwhelming forces, then you flee. I was demoralized, sick as a dog and I had frozen limbs". "I kept thinking, My god, what did I get into? How much can I take?" I stumbled into an aid station, collapsed, and slept for 24 hours.
“The mind forgets many images, but you remember the feeling of hopelessness and despair. You just want to die.."
There you go. I think that story serves as a salutary reminder that Christmas was not candy-coated everywhere on the battle front.
There are some excellent follower comments on that post so I would totally recommend you follow the link in the show notes.
But having possibly made you all feel miserable after that story, I promise you it’s all good from here.
And hot off the press as if in anticipation of my needs, Michael Stapleton has just written in …
Just listened to the episode with your wonderful mother, reminded me of a story grandmother told me when she was still alive, she worked at Knowsley industrial estate in Liverpool which I believe the estate manufactured around 10% of the munitions for the war effort, she told me of one night where she had finished work and the air raid sirens were going off but she was too far away from the bunkers so decided to walk home because the trams where off a whole 9 mile walk in the pitch dark and freezing cold with a friend she worked with.
Funny enough I work within one of these little factory's that still have some of the old original walls and windows from the war. It’s December now and I can say one thing it's cold ha. I think about how, potentially I can actually be working in the same factory my grandmother worked in, in wartime.
Around a year ago, we had to be evacuated when the old bomb shelter over the road was being excavated for some new building and they found an unexploded bomb from the war!
I don't have anyone to talk to about this stuff as they don't seem interested in anything wartime at all, frustrating really because without the effort of all those who lived and died through the war we wouldn't be lucky enough to have what we have today!
Michael Stapleton, Liverpool.
Grandmother's name was Elizabeth Williams and she was born February 1920. Towards the rear of the estate there are actually still train lines that used to take the munitions from the industrial estate to Liverpool docks for transport.
With so much being manufactured here I don't think it's impossible that your dad may have fired a bullet that was manufactured here by my grandmother!
The next Christmas at War story is from Dad’s book. It relates to the end of his war.
And if Dad experienced the Dunkirk spirit in 1940, he was to find some real Christmas spirit in 1945. I’m just having a sip of Normandy Calvados – join me if you can – cheers!
If you’re able, nip to FTP.co.uk, and you’ll find a photo of my Dad under episode 24. That’s the scene setter for this story, though you definitely do not have to look at the photo to understand the story, it’ll just add to the experience if you do.
The original photograph was in black and white and I’ve recently had it colourised by specialist Marina Amaral, just for the podcast!
It’s December 1945. The war in Europe is over and the Allies have occupied war torn, defeated Germany.
Having being wounded during the fighting in Normandy following D-Day, Dad’s recovered from his wounds at Dundee in Scotland and chooses to rejoin his pals, ending up in Germany as the war comes to an end.
But he’s now in the East Lancs infantry regiment. When he left England, he thought he was going to rejoin his beloved Green Howards but didn’t know they’d been withdrawn from battle, so Dad finds himself making new friends yet again!
Dad is posted to the Regimental Police in Headquarters company, patrolling, in this story, Duisberg ....
During his time in Germany, he was stationed at various places and covered Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Essen, Oberhausen and Duisburg amongst other places. In his memoir, dad says:
“We did patrols on our motorbikes and to be frank it was becoming
enjoyable. The days had gone when there was any possibility of resentment towards our presence. The population had suffered the first shock of defeat and were now accepting what they could not possibly have foreseen in the heyday of their country.
The companies of the battalion were spread out over a large area and it was my
duty to cover that area, which involved having to cross an excellent pontoon bridge across the River Elbe at Duisburg. It was a marvellous feat of engineering. The engineers were very clever doing the work they did on the Bailey bridges. Duisburg, too, had been a prime target of the air force”.
Just picking up on that point, Dad observes in his memoir that many areas of Germany had been absolutely flattened by allied bombing. He said of Essen, for instance, “They certainly got more than they had bargained for. It pleased me enormously to see it and to remember it. It was a pity Hitler didn’t live to see the results of his madness.”
In the photo …
Dad’s standing alone, in uniform, on a school sports field. Proud, smart, gazing into the distance. He’s got a Lance Corporal’s stripe on, though he’s about to be promoted to full corporal in charge of the Regimental Police.
On his brown battledress, he’s wearing the badge of the East Lancashire Battalion
On his right wrist is the brown leather duty brassard which is a sort of strap that signifies he’s on duty to anyone who needs to know.
On his head is a huge, almost oversized, brown beret, or more correctly the General Service Cap. Dad once quipped on the hat “I never did like those berets!”
He’s got the white webbing worn by the policemen, one diagonal strap and a belt that is now sitting on my desk today as I record this show! I’ve tried it on for size and I’ll tell you this, even though I’m pretty fit for my age, there is no way I can fasten it round my waist – so Dad must have been incredibly fit and trim – mind you he was way less than half my present age so we shouldn’t be too surprised. I’ve put a photo of the belt in the show notes.
He’s got white ankle covers on – called puttees. Polished, Black army boots. How smart he looks!
He looks in a contemplative mood as he poses for what could be one of his last photos in uniform. He’s reflecting upon his war, the tragedy and violence he’s witnessed,
on the horrors he’s seen and hopefully some of the better times.
Even though he’s in uniform he’s not carrying a gun, certainly not on this day as he’s there to supervise a children’s Christmas party, and this is where it gets better and better …
You’re listening to the Fighting Through podcast episode 24, Christmas at War.
Over to Dad …
"At the beginning of December 1945 (bear in mind the war ended in May 45) our company commander thought it would be good to give a Christmas party to about one hundred German children of about nine years of age. When the day arrived, they were assembled in the school hall and the police were present to give a hand.
The looks on the children’s faces were a just reward for the effort put into the party. They had never seen such a spread in their young lives. Food had been short in Germany for years and it was good to see them all so happy.
At the end, a teacher told them all to stand and thank our officers, then the teacher standing at the front raised her arms for attention, gave some instructions and the children all started to sing their national carol, Silent Night. We were all very touched - it sounded so beautiful. I was so impressed that every year I think of those German school children in that schoolroom near Duisberg.
MUSIC BLEND FORWARD
The memory is so vivid that in December 1986, forty-one years after the occasion, I wrote to the information bureau at Duisberg, telling them of my experience and asked if there was a record available of German children singing Silent Night, and if they would send it to me, letting me know how much money I should send back.
They replied, sending the record I had requested, with English and German words on an enclosure. It was a very kind letter, which I have kept. They thanked me for sharing my memories with them and the record was a gift from the German people. I can’t express in words my feelings, sufficient to say that every Christmas I play that record, recalling that lovely day in 1945."
And this indeed is the actual record, crackles and all ..
Well, how good was that – after all the cruelty, violence and hatred, it turned to the victors to show some compassion and kindness to these poor kids and help lay the foundations for a peaceful and hopefully forgiving Europe. If I had a time machine, I’d love to go back to that point in history.
There’s another photo I’m sharing with you in the show notes. It’s four regimental policemen and it’s just great because as you go from left to right, the expressions and stance of the men changes from not many medal ribbons, but casual and smiling, to several medal ribbons, steadfast, smart and resolute, which is my Dad – and it’s a wonderful reflection in my view of how the war affected people.
Of course these particular guys haven’t seen all that much action and I think that’s reflected in their attitude. But hey, the war’s over, so why wouldn’t they be smiling. Take a look anyway, and see what you think.
I’m posting another photo in the show notes of Dad enjoying a beer with his mates on a sunny day – wow!
There’s a PS coming up but for just a moment, news of the next episode - which is 25, Rufty Hill meets Winston – the photo that goes with the episode depicts Rufty Hill, one of Dad’s comrades, clowning about with friends in a photo booth in Limassol Cyprus in 1941. And they’ve got one more distinguished and unexpected guest!
Bill Vickers is another character in the photo and the story goes back to the start of the war, how these lads met, what special connection brought them together, and what tragedy was to befall some of them. And there are some very poignant moments in this episode, so you’ll need your tissues handy again.
And I’m posting the photo on the website right now, so if you want to check it out, go to the show notes for episode 25 at FTP.co.uk.
The first time I RECORDED this episode three years ago in 2017 I announced that I’d had nearly 100,000 downloads, which I found quite incredible”.
Well, would you believe that that figure in 2020 has now ballooned to over 500,000 and counting. So to you, as one of my several thousand individual regular listeners, I say thank you for your continued support and I want you to know how much it means to me. As much fun as it is doing this podcast, I would not keep it up without the support you give me.
So in December 2020, I’d like to wish you a safe Happy Christmas and a great New Year. If you’re listening to this in 2120, then I include you good folks too. We seem to have all too many problems on our planet at the moment and I hope they’ve all been solved.
Just one apology from me about the sometimes challenging sound quality of this show in a 22nd century context but, don’t you know, we’re only just getting over the second world war!!
If you’d like to make a contribution to the time and materials behind this podcast, I’d be most grateful. I expend many hours indeed on each show so if you enjoy listening as much as you do reading your favourite paid-for magazine, then please do consider sponsoring me. Monies I receive are now going to the Salvation Army.
If you wish to make a small monthly payment, which can easily be cancelled at any time, go to patreon.com/fightingthrough, where you’ll find full details. That’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.COM/fightingthrough.
Or if you just want to tip me the price of a coffee, paypal is an option – there are links from my home page FTP. And no amount is too small – if I got $1 off everone just once, well, I’d be smiling to say the least.
I’ve got quite a few Christmas stories and another musical treat to share with you now so put your feet up, unless you’re driving of course, and enjoy.
This next tale was posted by Joyce Gibson on the BBC people’s war website, first written for a booklet being produced by – shout out alert – U3A or Univ of the 3rd Age.
Joyce was a founder member of our U3A, North Down and Ards in Northern Ireland, although it’s a UK wide institution.
She says that U3A is a social and educational organisation for retired people who are not satisfied with coffee mornings etc, and are keen to get to know people and want sometimes to use their grey matter a bit more.
There’s a website - u3a.org.uk – where we are told that across the UK, members are learning, staying active and having fun in later life. It’s local, social, friendly, low-cost and open to all, with interest groups covering a wide range of topics and activities.
I am proud to say that we have now grown our U3A over 1300 members, the largest in Northern Ireland.
CHRISTMAS IN WARTIME
This is Joyce’s story – it’s about Children at war
“On reflection the phrase ‘Christmas in Wartime’ recalls scenes of deprivation, innovation, frustration and confrontation. I’ll explain.
We were deprived. There’s no doubt about that. Still reeling from the effects of the 30s depression, we were ill-shod, ill-clad, ill-furnished and undernourished and at no time was this more evident than at Christmas. But Christmas is Christmas and tradition had to be adhered to, my hide-bound father was adamant about that.
The lead up to Christmas was exciting, probably much more exciting than it is for today’s children, who have and do so much. The ‘co-op’ store’s party sticks vividly in my mind as something very special. It happened every year for the children and grandchildren of members who received the ‘divi’ (THE BONUS from their loyalty scheme). Every penny counted and my grandmother was a staunch supporter. Mind you, you might have got a few pence back but looking back I feel there was a certain amount of quality lacking. In those days however I had no such thoughts and looked forward to the jam buns and games, such as ‘musical chairs’ and ‘pass the parcel’ all year long. I think there may even have been a small gift, but I don’t remember anything notable. I think small was the operative word. Nevertheless it was a brave effort to give us children as normal a life as possible.
Talking of presents, everyone had of course to receive something on the day, we children got several things. Luckily my mother was nothing if not innovative — the complete antithesis to her husband. Preparations began weeks before Christmas, as they do nowadays l suppose, but instead of a big spending spree, it was a case of ‘make do and mend.’ One year my mother collected as many newspapers she could lay her hands on, tore them into tiny pieces and put them to soak in a large bucket of flour and water paste. The pulpy mixture was plastered on to the cardboard model of a fort and painted with iron grey house paint.
After my brother John had fallen asleep, I often crept downstairs ‘to help’. My mother, Lou, must have been at it long after I had returned to bed as I in my turn, received a truly hideous doll, not one of her best efforts I may add. I don’t want to seem ungrateful and I quite understand the difficulties but this nurse-puppet was ugly! Her devilish looks came from the fact that her plaster-of-Paris head topped the torso of a baby doll whose china one had long ago been smashed. Mother’s attempt to paint a face on to plaster had sadly gone awry, the gaudy paint running spectacularly on the damp surface. However I didn’t have to gaze on her strange features for very long, as after breakfast she accidentally fell to the floor, the head shattering into a thousand pieces! Poor Mother!
My own efforts at present making were no less diligent. All adult male relatives and friends received a decorated tin container filled with wooden spills for lighting pipes and cigarettes. I spent hours dipping old tin cans into tubs of water on top of which floated a skin of oil paint in a fine selection of colours. The results resembled today’s modem art. Females received purses made of scraps of leather punched and thonged, representing hours of agonising toil.
Craft classes organised by my wealthy aunt and her friend have made an indelible impression on me. I have never since graced one with my presence and doubt I ever will. The same aunt was prone to gather supplies on the black market. My brother stored many a packet of sugar cubes, her habitual Christmas present, in an old jam jar. He couldn’t bring himself to eat them, there would be none left!
My mother usually managed to gather together an assortment of Christmas fare. Not for us any black market goods - immoral and too expensive. We did however sometimes receive American food parcels. Our Christmas cake was made from American dried eggs and fruit and covered with soya flour, serving as a mock almond paste and white icing made with guess what, dried milk powder. It tasted absolutely revolting but looked nice. I remember one particular gem made by my innovative mother in the form of a house. lt was square and set on a large green painted board. All around it in the garden were little eskimos sliding on a pond-like mirror, trees and father Christmases. I don’t know how she did it. It was a true work of art.
We usually had a turkey too — a real one. My patriotic but irascible father, Jack, although too old to be conscripted, had volunteered to join the Royal Marines. In charge of supplies at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, he was usually given Christmas leave and returned home complete with a dozen eggs and a turkey. However the arrival of this comparative stranger often caused a few problems. He had very set ideas and Lou, not naturally domesticated, was obliged to unearth all the mothballed vegetable dishes and fancy cutlery not normally in use. She would invariably sit down at the festive table thoroughly exhausted and rather demoralised. You can imagine the scene one December 25th when after all this effort he asked, ‘Where on earth did all these goodies come from?’ ‘Oh a food parcel arrived yesterday from Cuba from Auntie Grace’
‘And have you written to thank her?, he’d ask. No amount of reasoning would placate him. His distant, aristocratic and respected sister had not been thanked, we had foolishly admitted it and all hell was let loose. The bombs and shells which frequently dropped around our house seemed preferable to the domestic upset which ensued that Christmas.
With the wisdom of a ten year old, the following year I attempted to avoid such incidents. I resolved to make some Christmas crackers to divert attention. I laboriously typed mottoes and conundrums, found in a cheap book from Woolworth’s, and had great fun collecting small gifts to put inside them. There were unfortunately no bangs. My ingenuity and chemical knowledge didn’t stretch that far.
After our often tempestuous lunch-cum-dinner, usually quite late in the afternoon, we would repair to the dimly lit and scarcely heated sitting room. Army blankets, doubling up as both blackout and insulation, covered the windows, decorated by patch-work roses to take off the stark grey blankety look, and the door was hung with a large red velvet curtain to keep out the draughts. Cards from special people, usually those displaying coats of arms which pleased my father’s ego, were arranged on the mantelpiece. Most of the others spread around the room, were home-made, often from black and white advertising illustrations cut from the Radio Times and tinted with watercolour from the paint box. What must have been one of the first plastic Christmas trees, and a very bad one too, stood in the corner, given to my Mother by a colleague at work ‘to cheer up the children you know.’
I must have been a very precocious child as I remember on a couple of occasions insisting that the Christmas spirit should be invoked with a carol singing session. A neighbouring lone mother and her three children were invited in to sing with us. The embarrassment on the faces of all the adults present and the excruciating sound we made, have long stuck in my memory.
In spite of the frequent trials and tribulations, I think of Christmas in those days so long ago with great affection. We had fun making do, luckily we survived and I have never again delayed writing my thank you letters.
Some Christmas's Remembered - 1942, 43, 44 and 45
Ivor Walter Chappell
Royal Naval story
Location of story:
Kempston, London Docks, mid Atlantic, Blackfriars in London
Christmas 1942, I had turned 18 in the October. Our Christmas's were poor things at that time, we were so lucky with what we had got. Our Christmas's were true and warm, family gatherings, no oranges, no bananas, nuts hard to come by, no crackers, very lucky to get a chicken for dinner, but we made the best of what we'd got. One thing that we had in abundance was family love. In 1942, this was to be my last Christmas at home for the next three years but who could tell what lay in the future? That Christmas, the thing which I remember most for some reason was the fact that Mum had lit the fire in the front room, a big cold and rather damp place, which would be at it's best by about evening. I can recall sister Doreen and younger brother Colin and me in there with Mum popping in and out to make the fire up every so often. It would be a very special occasion to use the front room in those days, they were only kept for special occasions. Maybe being Ivor's last Christmas at home could be classed as special?
I don't recall what we did but just being in there was special. Funnily enough I can remember my next three Christmas's a lot better!
In 1943 early on I got called up into the Royal Navy, so Christmas 1943 saw me as a Royal Navy gunner on board a merchant ship for ack ack purposes (anti-aircraft). We were known as D.E.M.S. (Defensive Equipped Merchant Ships) and that is where I served my three years. Christmas 1943 out ship, a 10,000 ton merchantman named "The Empire Spartan" had come into London Docks, Millwall area to unload the biggest part of our cargo into a giant silo, this was a few thousand tons of wheat. While we were there it was decided to fumigate the ship. This meant the whole ship had got to be evacuated, well we'd got the merchant crew signed off and gone home, they were all Londoners anyway. Cargo all gone, ship empty but now who is going to guard it? All the other gunners could get home rather easily except myself and a Scotsman. My journey would be about 60 miles and Jocks a very long way as you might guess! It was going to take about a day and a half from start to finish. So off went our pals to be with their loved ones on this special day, wishing Jock and myself all the best. And here came the fumigators, did the job and left. Flooding the ship with gas, goodbye rats, cockroaches and sundry other creepy crawlies!
Now it slowly dawned on me and us, we had no food, no shelter, we had our heavy coats to protect us but we'd got to patrol the gangway and all along the ship for at least the coming night and well into the next day, we hadn't even given toilets a thought!
Food? Jock had managed to get hold of something like a tin of peaches and a tin of pears I think. So I stood there, Jock went off to look round, we were in a flattened area apart from the silo and some buildings nearby, but a really desolate area.
It's Christmas Eve, yes I'm 19 years old, yes I did think of home, so near and yet so far! Yes, a lump in throat, my first Christmas away from home! In London docks on a bitterly cold day, sleeting in the wind. No Father Christmas here! Been gone nine months. Well, it could be a lot worse! Jock comes back, he calls me over, I walk towards him, over the way is a small backwater in which are tied up three or four old steel barges which ply on the river, one still has a wisp of smoke coming out of its small chimney on the stern. That'll do for us, not a soul about, no air raids, all is quiet. On to this barge we scramble down a small steel ladder and into a small scruffy cabin, a small donkey stove, still warm, cabin still warm, lovely, heaven! Jock says, "Let's eat our dinner." Two tins, oh no, oh no! No tin opener, good old Jock he's got his sailors knife on him, among the various things on it is a wonderful tin opener, so goodbye peaches and pears. Will it keep us going until about 18 hours or so if we are lucky? Then it's dark, no lights anywhere of course. Way over by the giant silo, just before it got too dark to see, we saw some people moving around, so we ambled over there.
We found that these were workers on fire watch duty. The small cabin on the steel barge had begun to get real cold, all steel is not the warmest of things! So when these workers took us into their warm canteen we thought someone had smiled on us. Well, it was warm and dry and that was something. So out came the pack of cards, out came halfpennies, etc., brag or nap was the game. I didn't play, it got boring. So I said to Jock, "I'm off for a scout around," he, now enjoying himself, said, "OK." So, out I strolled, looked around. All is quiet so I kept walking, found some gates, can't remember if manned or not and out I went. On looking around in the dim light as I kept walking I came to a pub (of course!)it's open, in I got and I get my pint and I sit down. As long as I don't get caught I'm doing fine. But there then occurred something that has lived in my memory ever since. Some time later a little old gray haired lady was sitting near me, we got chatting and I told her my story of how I got to be there. She was very sympathetic, she said, "Are you telling me that's all you've had to eat? And it's Christmas!" I said, "Well, we've got to manage somehow until tomorrow sometime, they wouldn't be coming to clear the ship until around noon and then when we thing about it, we've got to wait for the gas to clear. Oh, boy, we really planned it good, didn't we?" Anyway this little old lady got to her feet, she said, "Wait there my boy. I'm just nipping out but I'm coming back, don't go anywhere." She must have lived nearby, for back she came in a short while and laid a package in front of me, "There you are my boy, you're looking after us now it's my turn to do something for you. We owe you boys a big debt that we can never repay!" I felt good. I unwrapped the package. In it were some bread and cheese sandwiches! Oh boy, oh boy, her rations given to me. I can still feel it to this day. Yes, I ate them, payment, no never, didn't want anything! Now there's a Christmas memory!
Back to the canteen once more, check the ship, all is OK still. As I gazed all around I thought of my Christmas's past and I thought of Christmas now, this bl.... war! In the canteen the card school was slowing down. I went over to some chairs that were lined up against the wall, managed somehow to lay full length along five or six of them and I then fell asleep. Next thing I knew, the nightshift were going home, the new day shift were in, all clean and fresh, chatting and laughing. Jock and me, winking and blinking out into the cold frosty morning feeling like something the cat had dragged in as they used to say!
Now we have to show ourselves, icy cold or not. So out we are just waiting and waiting. Finally along came the fumigators, gasmasks on, onto the ship they go, doors opened wide, portholes open, etc. Off they come, all done, a nice rat free ship now, no more cockroaches in the soup. Nobody allowed on board for the next hour or two, that includes Jock and me, so now it's more waiting for us. Time goes by and gradually some of our lads come back and an officer or tow, then it's back on board again. Oh, that gassy smell, into our clothesm everywhere, it was still with us for days! So that was my Christmas of 1943. But when I know all these years later how some people spent their Christmas's, I certainly consider my 1943 Christmas one to be remembered and lucky to do as we did, I certainly could count my blessings!
I feel so lucky to be able to remember all these things and yet I can't for the life of my remember Jock, my partner in our 1943 Christmas, just that he was Jock! But that's how wars are.
Now it's onto 1944 Christmas and what a time that was! My 1944 Christmas was spent in a 30 ship convoy in mid Atlantic, a lovely place to be! We'd survived a 90 mile an hour storm of about three days when we didn't know if we were going to come through or not, a very frightening experience especially to a 19 year old landlubber like me. The ship pitched and tossed and you literally took your life in your hands to go up top deck! We were an empty ship convoy that made it much worse, bound for U.S.A. In a convoy and at a time like that to be empty, it couldn't have been much worse, you could see half of the keels of some ships as the stern went down into the sea. But one morning we got up and all was more or less back to normal, the escorts were shepherding blown off their course ships back into line. We didn't realise it but Christmas was approaching, we never looked at calendars, we didn't need them, our days and worlds were watchkeeping 8 'til 12, 12 'til 4, 4 'til 8, round the clock, 24 hours a day on the stern, in a gunpit amidships or up on the bridge in a gunpit. That was our time and our life. Between times we slept and ate, washed our clothes and ourselves or cleaned the guns! Somebody somewhere had I suppose mentioned that Christmas was getting near but out in the Atlantic would be a bit too far for Santa Claus to come, so it would be just another day to us with our watchkeeping duties, anti-submarine watches, etc. I know I was sitting down in our quarters in the stern when someone came rattling down the steel ladder shouting "Come up on deck, come and look at this. You'll never see anything like this ever again!" We thought what the hell is he going on about? We all scrambled up the ladder and out onto the deck, what a sight to see! He was right, coming down between the lines of ships was an American destroyer, but this wasn't just any old destroyer, it was garlanded in pretty decorations, all up the masts, all around the bridge, signs saying "A Merry Christmas". The best bit was, and I'll never forget it, Father Christmas in full regalia standing proud, up on the bridge on a raised platform, waving his beard at us and shouting through a megaphone, "Ho, ho, ho, a merry Christmas everyone." The icing on the cake that brought a lump to your throat was that nice and clear across the water came the sound of a choir singing, Silent Night. Absolutely wonderful! Old, hard bitten old salts just stood there tears running down their faces. To me that was out of this world! That was my 1944 Christmas. A few days later we tied up alongside in New Jersey, USA to a foot of snow and temperatures of below zero, but it was still Christmassy to us. Until they turned our heating off for three or four days to affect some repairs, but that's another story! So I guess we all went ashore and made hay while the sun shone so to speak!
A by the way memory, it was here that I went into a shop to stock up on underwear, the girl asked me for my waist measurement, it was at that wonderful time 32", nowadays, it's best not to ask! On that Christmas day I've got an idea we may have had chicken for dinner. I certainly don't recall any Christmas pudding. Now that's a Christmas that I've never forgotten.
Now for 1945, again a mite different you might say. I was then stationed at an old depot ship at Blackfriars in London, on the Thames, H.M.S. Chrysanthemum, lovely name. My watch was stuck on board for Christmas. On Christmas Day we all went next door onto H.M.S."President" another old ship converted into a depot ship. Here for a beautiful breakfast and dinner as well. Us ordinary seamen were waited on by various officers and Petty Officers, an old tradition that for some reason was carried on over the years. The feeling was great, more happy faces, discipline relaxed, was worth waiting for!
So that about concludes my four Christmas's which to me, funnily enough as I now look back, are memories worth keeping and remembering, of people and bygone days when we never knew about tomorrow!
Germans – silent night – used before
Christmas With The Enemy
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One Christmas Sunday they invited German POWs to our chapel. They were Lutherens and had been going into our Methodist services and had been made welcome by most, if not all, of chapel's members, so we invited them to the carol concert.
They sang "Silent Night" in the original German and some people with a smattering of German joined in.
For one hour the war was forgotten and we all celebrated Christmas together. We managed to give them a cup of tea and a biscuit too.
It wasn't popular in the village, what we had done, but they were somebody's sons, somebody's brothers, somebody's husbands. Our soldiers were just obeying orders just like they were just obeying orders.
Often their Enlgish was very good and you could talk to them. It was interesting to hear their views about the Nazi regime and many of them agreed that it was evil and should be crushed.
My Unforgettable Christmas 1946
Prisoners of War
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I came to England as a German POW in September 1946. The war had finished 16 months ago and I had been working as a prisoner with a German Workshop Company in Italy for about one year.
We were not allowed to communicate with our families, but we were all eager to return home, starting a new life and helping with the reconstruction of a new Germany.
Eventually my turn came for repatriation. However at the repatriation camp of Munsterlager in Germany we were told, that instead of going home we were to be shipped to England to help with the harvest.
I was posted to No 9 Bomb Disposal Squadron at Huyton near Liverpool. Our job was to dig out unexploded bombs left behind from the bombings by the Luftwaffe. Although it was against the Geneva Convention to employ prisoners for such dangerous work, we did not complain and got on with the job. After all, we were fed adequately and had a roof over our heads, whilst at the same time in Germany many people were starving and lived in squalor.
A limited communication with our loved ones was allowed now. But the one thing bothering us most was, the fact, that the time we had to serve as prisoners was open ended, in contrast to criminal prisoners who were given a fixed sentence; we did not know when we would be allowed to go home.
Our camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by Irish Guards. We left the camp only to go to the different bomb jobs, to which we were transported by lorry.
Civilians were not allowed to speak to us, as the non-fraternization rule was still in operation. Just before Christmas these strict measures were relaxed. We were allowed to walk within five miles of the camp and stay out till ten o’clock.
British people were allowed to invite German prisoners to their homes for Christmas. The reaction was overwhelming and showed the true nature of the British people. Although Liverpool had suffered badly by the bombings of the Luftwaffe, a flood of invitations arrived at the camp.
Most of the British soldiers had been sent on Christmas leave and as German POWs were not allowed to use public transport, a skeleton staff of Officers and NCOs had to deliver the Germans to their hosts and return them back again to the camp.
With a fellow prisoner I was taken to an elderly couple at Bootle. The lieutenant went up to the front door, rang the bell and informed the person opening the door; “here are the two Germans you asked for”.
We had tried to make ourselves presentable in our prisoners garb. But I felt very nervous, I had not set foot in a private house for years and was anxious to behave in a proper manner.
I needn’t have worried the welcome was very friendly. There were no formalities, we called each other by our christian names and managed to communicate quite well; the interpreting was left to me, as I had learned some English at school.
I can hardly describe my feelings when we were invited to sit at the table for the Christmas meal. There was still food rationing, but it was evident that these people had made a special effort.
True to British custom, the master of the house was carving the turkey and saw to it that their guests received an extra large portion. I was close to tears when I started to eat.
In the afternoon a younger niece appeared to take the weight off the older people and to play games with us young prisoners till late night when we were collected for the ride back to camp.
This act of human kindness shown to me by those few people represented the general feeling of the majority of the entire nation at that time. I shall never forget this to my dying days.
I’ve got one last story for you – the story of the Christmas tree.
When I first recorded this episode I’d been to see Mum in Cambridge
On her coffee table she had a little musical Chistmas tree. It’s years old. Mum and Dad must have bought in the early 50’s, probably not that long after the war had finished. And I’m sure that one reason dad would have chosen to but it is because you can wind it up and it spins round slowly whilst playing – silent night.
I remember playing with that tree when I was a kid, lovingly decorating it and playing with the various figurines and dolls we use to keep in the Christmas box in the attic.
There’s a short video of the tree in the show notes.
And to finish the show I took the opportunity to record a few bars from it to share with you – and every time I listen to it reminds me of my Dad all those miles and years away in Germany, holding a Christmas Party for those poor little school children. How good was that!?
Merging it in at the end is a production of the same tune by musician Harry Standing.
Learn how the Dunkirk spirit of 1940 became the Christmas spirit of ‘45. Hear the story behind the photographs, as Bill Cheall keeps the peace as a regimental policeman in war-torn and defeated Germany. Scroll down to read the story or play to listen
Got Spotify? Hear the whole of Silent Night. Otherwise hear part of it.
Bill Cheall, left. All dressed for another day's motor cycling around Germany
Dad's army belt as seen in the photos
An American GI during the battle of the Bulge (George Silk The LIFE Picture Collection) More on link below