Was it that famous British sense of humour which helped the nation through one of the darkest chapters in our history?
Journalist and author Anton Rippon was always amazed that a round of laughter often seemed to accompany his parents’ memories of the Second World War.
Take the tale of the woman down the street who refused to go to the air raid shelter until she had found her false teeth. ‘For Christ’s sake,’ shouted her son, ‘they’re dropping bombs, not bloody ham sandwiches.’
Curious as to whether this black humour had been a common experience, in 1978 he made an appeal through national and regional newspapers asking for amusing war stories.
The response was immediate and overwhelming as people from all over the country contacted him with their tales of the strange, incredible and downright funny things that happened to them between 1939 and 1945.
Many of their first-hand accounts seemed terrifying and hair-raising but a ‘gallows humour,’ he soon realised, was ideal for drawing the sting out of a threatening situation and helping Britons to ‘keep calm and carry on.’
In this unique, laugh-out-loud and sometimes heartbreakingly poignant collection of real-life stories from the Home Front, Rippon takes us from the Blitz to the Home Guard, from blackouts to unexploded bombs, and from Haslingden in Lancashire to Highams Park in London.
There are amazing stories of lucky escapes, bombs ‘coming down like falling rain,’ a bed blown across the street with a pair of trousers still neatly hanging on the end and a pianist playing on stage even after a bomb blew in all the doors but only because he ‘couldn’t stand up for fright.’
One family emerged from their shelter after a heavy raid, opened the back door of their house and discovered that the only thing still standing was that outside back wall.
Life was certainly extremely tough – and often dangerous – on the Home Front so a sense of humour was needed to cope with the everyday problems of balancing domestic duties with wartime work.
In London, the bus queues were sometimes plunged into chaos when Hitler’s infamous flying bombs, doodlebugs, could be heard overheard. One worker recalls everyone throwing themselves onto the ground until one landed a few streets away and then reforming into a line.
He felt a sudden tap on his shoulder and turned to see a ‘city gent’ who informed him, ‘Excuse me, but I think I was in front of you.’
Some understandably sentimental, some outrageously dark and funny, and some unbearably sad, these stories reveal the nation’s bravery and bravado, satire and stoicism in the face of terrible adversity.
How Britain Kept Calm and Carried On is a fitting and fascinating tribute to a generation’s dogged determination and bulldog spirit.
(Michael O’Mara, hardback, £14.99)