Remembrance Week – Grandad, Richard Dimbleby and an Unknown German Soldier
This is the post I’ve been wanting to put up since I started this blog. It’s my treasure trove – my Grandad’s archive of his wartime activities, stuffed inside a book that both fascinates me and creeps me out in equal measure.
Firstly, a note – my scans are often a bit wonky on this blog, I’m afraid. This is usually due to the delicate nature of my old books, which means that they don’t take kindly to being pressed open (and, admittedly, sometimes it’s just because I’m still trying to improve at the scanning and photo editing involved). But this post is full of some of the most delicate things I have, and some of them have almost disintegrated. So wonkiness is rather unavoidable.
My Grandad was Allan Pickup, a lovely man from Rossendale, in Lancashire (and apparently one of his much younger cousins was Ronald Pickup, the actor). He’d been a bus driver before the Second World War, and after signing up he landed quite a brilliant job – he served with the Motor Transport Corps and became one of the official drivers for the brilliant Richard Dimbleby, the BBC’s first and most prominent war correspondent.
This was pretty exciting stuff, at least at this point – to start with he was in France with the British Expeditionary Force, on the Maginot Line. This was during the so-called “phoney war” period, before things really kicked off properly. I do imagine him on the Maginot Line, as the George Formby song goes. Being a big Formby fan, I just have to include the clip below, where he’s singing his song to the soldiers on the Maginot Line itself. I really love this footage – it gives me such a sense of a moment just hanging in time.
Grandad’s proximity to the press meant he was in sight of many luminaries of the period – which I know because he kept his clippings from the Rossendale Free Press in this book. It sounded like he was a slight celebrity to his local newspaper because of his job – the clippings show he handed Gracie Fields a bouquet, met the actor Sir Seymour Hicks, and was “in reaching distance” of King George VI when he visited the front. He was on the BBC giving his impressions from The Maginot Line, and also on a BBC spelling bee quiz for soldiers and their relatives – he and my Grandma, Bessie, being on opposing teams. As far as anyone was having a good time in the war at this point, it sounds like he was finding it all pretty thrilling, and I don’t blame him. He says,
“I myself have been on the air, on the screen (on the news reels) and also been mentioned in The Daily Mail, so that is not a bad show for just a common bus driver.”
(I’ve looked for the newsreels and although the British Pathe archives are incredible, and one of my favourite places on the internet, I sadly can’t find anything.)
He told my mum that Richard Dimbleby was a lovely man – in fact, once they were in Arras, in northern France, when Dimbleby wanted to stop at a jeweller to buy his wife a present. Grandad was looking at the rings, but couldn’t afford to buy one. So Dimbleby bought one for him, to give to Grandma. We still have it, in its box, on the bottom of which Grandad wrote “To Bessie, with love from France” (and then, possibly as an afterthought, thinking “France” was too vague, he wrote “Allan” up the side).
And when Richard Dimbleby was on the cover of The Radio Times in January 1940, there was Grandad, in his driver’s cap, standing next to the car. Thanks to the brilliant and recently launched BBC Genome project, I see the reason Dimbleby was on the cover that week was because his programme “Despatch from the Front”, was launching in a new weekly format. Grandad saved the cover and back pages, and they’re wonderful. I did post up my favourite advert of all time earlier this week, but here it is again (any excuse):
Here are the other things Grandad kept in the book:
A tourist guide to the First World War trenches of Vimy –
A morale-boosting piece about a soldier missing his home and family –
This is what really chokes me up, though. It’s a couple of pages torn from The Journal of the Royal Army Service Corps, and an article by Major C. R. Thompson called “The Horror of Belsen”. I don’t know what date this journal was from, but the letters mention a previous edition of March 1945, and as Belsen was liberated by the British Army in April 1945, this must have been one of the very first impressions of the concentration camps. Perhaps Grandad had been there – Richard Dimbleby famously filed the first report from Belsen, breaking down as he described what he’d seen. The BBC didn’t believe that what he was saying could be true and decided not to run the report. Dimbleby threatened to resign if it wasn’t broadcast, and so four days later it was. At this point the world began to find out about what had really been happening in those camps.
Grandad had torn the pages out in order to post them to Grandma, and he wrote at the top, “Read this darling, and think what may have happened in England x”
But this is all only half the story. The thing is, before my Grandad kept his clippings and reminders of home in this book, someone else did too. And they’re still there. Because this book belonged to a German soldier first; it’s called Fahrten und Flüge gegen England (“Trips and Flights from England” is the translation, I think) published in 1941 by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces.
What it is, is a book celebrating the victorious strikes by both the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine against England in 1941, entirely written in headache-inducing gothic font. Here’s some pages detailing the attacks on Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool. Google Translate tells me these chapters are called “The attack on Coventry”, “Twice the big attack on Manchester” and “The Port of Liverpool, a single Inferno”:
I have no idea where or how Grandad got this book. But inside it were similar mementoes of the German soldier it once belonged to, which Grandad kept along with his own.
This might have been him:
Plus some postcards apparently dated 1915 and addressed to somewhere in Holland. Perhaps a family heirloom from the First World War?
And I don’t know if Grandad even knew about this. All the other memorabilia was mixed together with Grandad’s own, but I found this thin letter from 1944, unobtrusively slipped between two different pages. It’s written to “lieber Heini” so presumably this soldier was called Heinrich. I’d love to translate this as far as possible one day –
The book is incredible and quite sobering. At this point in 1941, things were looking pretty good for Germany. I get the sense this book is a very confident expression of the expectation of ultimate victory. There are a lot of pictures – here are some of them. They show bombs over London, Maidstone, Swansea, ships exploding, mines erupting, attacks at Scapa Flow, Tower Bridge as seen from a bomber plane, shark-painted Messerschmitts, and the Nazi High Command meeting the troops. Strange to think it was someone’s job to take these action shots as they happened –
In the end, at this distance, it’s hard to know what to feel, exactly. I have a great sense of melancholy for “Heini”, who I presume didn’t live to see the end of the war. I have a huge admiration for Grandad, who saw quite some sights and then quietly went back to his life in Lancashire. And I’d love to have one last conversation with him now, about all this.