1943 through the eyes of an Englishman

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Stalingrad - Fighting at throwing distance.
The BEV Retrospective - 1943.

In early 1943 the Soviets inflicted a deadly blow on the Wehrmacht at Stalingrad, when a whole elite German army was lost. Stalingrad was a bloody, no-quarters affair with casualties on the order of 1.5 million. It was probably the turning point of the war in the east. Both sides fought with enormous determination and discipline. At one point, when the Germans and allies were attempting to take the city, the average life expectancy of a Soviet infantryman was one day. The city fell, and in due course the Russians counter-attacked to take it back. At the end, Hitler promoted the German general Paulus, in charge of the defence, to Field Marshall, in the expectation that this would induce him not to surrender. Paulus however, knew that the cause was lost, and did so saying "I have no intention of shooting myself for that Austrian corporal". The Stalingrad battle was characteristic of the huge and heroic efforts that the Soviet armies would make throughout the war.

As the Stalingrad battle was raging, Churchill, Roosevelt, Charles de Gaul, the leader of the free French, and his competitor for that job Henri Giraud met at a conference in Casablanca, Morocco.

They decided that they would accept nothing but the unconditional surrender of the Axis (Germany, Italy, Japan, and sundries); that they would provide whatever assistance they could to the Soviet Union in its fight against the Nazis; and that to take some pressure off the Soviets, they would attempt an invasion of Sicily and Italy as soon as possible. In May, the German and Italian troops in North Africa surrendered, nipped between the Americans and British advancing from the west, and the British from the east, thus paving the way for the Sicily/Italy invasion.

U Boat stalking a convoy.

In July, as planned, allied forces landed in Sicily, and two months later they landed in Italy. Then, and probably from Churchill's point of view, best of all, in the same month, after heavy U Boat losses, Admiral Donitz suspended their operations in the north Atlantic - phew!

The allies had learned through the application of Operational Research, and with the assistance of constantly improving centimetric radar, and long-range patrol aircraft, how to make it more difficult for the U boats to get to the Atlantic convoys, and how to sink them.

It's always understated in films and TV programs about the war and possibly in the history in general, but if Hitler had a chance to destroy this particular centre of resistance to his dominance over Europe, then the U Boats were it. If he had built enough of them, and got enough conscripts or recruits to man them, then he could have strangled Britain to death. Then there would have been no springboard for the later invasion of Festung Europa.

There was no great sigh of relief among the populace as a whole: few of them had ever known how bad it really was.

Russian T34 tanks and infantry at Kursk.

In the summer, the Wehrmacht launched an offensive on the Russian front in the Kursk area. But the Soviets had anticipated this move, and had constructed a deep defensive position in great secrecy and amassed large reserves for an anticipated eventual counter attack. The German offensive broke on the enormous Soviet defences, and the counter attack was successful, dealing the Germans a heavy blow.

For the first time a very large German offensive had been broken up before it achieved a breakthrough, and the Russians had successfully counter attacked. For the rest of the war on the eastern front, the boot would remain mostly on the Russian foot.

The Kursk battle was almost undoubtedly the greatest tank battle of all time. It would be difficult to anticipate anything similar in the future given the capabilities of current guided missile systems. It also encompassed the most costly air battle of WW2.


In this year also, as part of the Manhattan Project, the construction of Uranium enrichment facilities commenced at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and work was started on the first plutonium production reactor at the Hanford site in Washington State. The first stage of building at the Los Alamos laboratories in New Mexico was also completed, by which time the facilities were already too small. Staff moved into Los Alamos, and work commenced in earnest on the theoretical and practical problems of building nuclear weapons.

At that time, it was assumed that a bomb could be built using either uranium 235 or Plutonium, when sufficient supplies of these fissile materials became available, using a gun technology. A fissile bullet or shell would be fired from a conventional gun barrel into a target of similar material. Separately the two pieces would be harmless, but when rapidly joined together, they would form a critical mass that would then start a chain reaction with the aid of a few judiciously introduced neutrons.

However, the Manhattan Project had a policy of pursuing all possibilities, essentially regardless of cost. A team also began to investigate the idea of compressing a hollow metal sphere of a geometry that would not be critical, into a solid critical mass, using the force of surrounding explosives. A lot of heavyweight math and numerical analysis was to go on at Los Alamos during the next two years.

Collosus code-breaking computer.

It's worth noting that in those days all the calculation for the Manhattan project was done using either desk-top mechanical or electro-mechanical calculators, or the ubiquitous slide rule.

Heralding a change, the British also constructed the first programmable electronic digital computer in this year. It was a vacuum-tube device called Collosus, and while it was not a true electronic computer as we would understand the term today, it was well on the way. It was incomplete because it was designed for a specific process.

The job of this particular beast was to simulate the action of the German Lorenz cipher machine very quickly for a large number of possible Lorenz settings. It read its data from punched paper tape transcribed from code intercepts.

Its security classification was such that its inventors and constructors received no recognition for their role in the development of digital computers in their lifetime.

So what did I do in those times? Well, of course, I have no idea - I was only one in April. I can form some sort of a picture of life for my elders by reading the history. Mostly, I guess, apart from the stress, it affected you in the belly - not that I ever new anything different. Commodities that would normally be imported - tea, bananas, grapes, and so on, ceased to be available. Then butter, lard, sugar, and flour became hard to get, followed shortly by meat and fish. There were ration books - booklets of coupons that you had to take to the appropriate shop. You gave up your coupons to buy the items that were rationed. Pregnant women got extra coupons if they dared admit they were pregnant. In those days getting pregnant while your man was away fighting for King and Country was a big deal, and not something to be easily admitted. Mum was OK in this respect, since she got pregnant with her husband while he was on leave prior to being shipped off somewhere.

There was milk, and there was cheese, and for those with money, there was of course a 'black market'. One of my earliest childhood food memories - no doubt later than this year - is of "cooked cheese". My mother would put some milk in a shallow enamelled bowl, and grate cheddar cheese into it, and then she'd heat the mixture over a pan of boiling water. If it was a good day, you'd get a pat of butter added when it was ready. Then you'd eat the mixture with a couple of slices of bread, dipping it up, and finishing the curdy bits of cheese left at the bottom with a spoon. I make this occasionally as a comfort food to this day.

Cottingley Main Street.

The house where we lived was a sandstone back-to-back terrace house with a sandstone slab roof. Back-to-backs were the bottom end of the housing spectrum. Terrace houses are houses joined together in a line, sharing common side walls. Back to back houses are terrace houses where there is a wall up the middle as well - up the spine of the block, so that the front and the back are separate dwellings.

There was a cellar, part storage area, and part coal cellar. At ground level there was a single main room with steps to the upstairs at the side, and a scullery at the back with a cold water tap and a stone sink. The entrance door was directly into this main room at the right side of the house. At the left side of the room, embedded in a chimney breast was a coal fireplace with a side range where my mother would cook and heat water. Lighting was by gas and incandescent mantle. There was no electricity, and no heating other than the coal fire, which for much of the year was lit first thing in the morning, and banked up to keep the house warm until it went out at night.

On the first floor there was a single bedroom, and above that an attic with a sloping ceiling, where I used to sleep.

My mother was always a chapel-going woman. I think technically she was a Methodist. The chapel was just down the road, about six houses away, and I'm sure I was taken there on Sundays, though I don't remember it.

As for social life, I probably crawled around the floor at number 11, at Granny Teale's house at number 9, and at number 13 with my friend John Wordsworth. Occasionally my mother would take me in a push chair to visit her mother - Grandma Armitage - in Great Horton, a suburb to the south-west of Bradford.

This would have necessitated a walk down to Cottingley Bar - the junction of the main road from Bingley to Bradford and the road down the hill from Cottingley. It was so called because at one time one of the roads that met there was a toll road, and it was the point where there was a barrier, a bar, and tolls were collected. From Cottingley Bar there was a ride on the trolley bus into Bradford, a walk across the city, and then a ride on a tram car on rails up to the end of grandma's street in Great Horton. I know that I used to call the trams "tumple trams" from the noise they used to make as they passed over the joins in the track, but I have no idea at what age this terminology developed.

Grandma Armitage lived in a stone terrace house on a 19th century cobbled street. She used to lose patience with me being into everything at times, and she would tell me that if I could sit still on a particular kitchen chair for five minutes, then I would find a Woodcock under the chair. I had no more idea than she what a Woodcock was, and neither of us ever found out because I was not capable of sitting still for anywhere near as long as that. In those days Grandad Armitage was still alive, but he is not a figure I have much memory of. I think maybe he was not a small child person, though god knows, he'd brought enough of them into the world. Mum came from a family of ten - and there were usually some of them around, often with their children, when we were there - and that was his second marriage.

Grandma Armitage was a lifelong socialist with tendencies toward Marxism. She had been a suffragette back at the time when some British women were fighting for the vote, and had been one of those who chained herself to iron railings to make things difficult for the police when they tried to move the demonstrators on.


During the war there was little in the way of politics. The government in Britain was a coalition whose sole aim was to avoid defeat for now and strive for victory in the future. In the US, I believe the majority was solidly behind Roosevelt. The war, and the associated frantic industrial production were the primary focuses.

Casablanca - the movie.


The movie "Casablanca" premiered in New York in November 1942, so if you got chance you would probably have seen it in England this year. You might also have seen Cary Grant in "Arsenic and Old Lace", or the screen adaptation of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls".

A typical British war film of the period was "Fires were started" - The title derives from the understated way in which the BBC would report the effect of German bombing raids on British cities. The film is about a fire fighting recruit joining his unit. He spends some pleasant time during the day with his new colleagues before his introduction to the real thing that night.

The concept of popular music charts was missing in the 40s, so it's difficult to be precise about what you'd have heard most on the radio in any particular year.

One song that does stick in my mind from 1943 is a an American nonsense song commonly remembered by the British for the line "Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy". I doubt if I remember it from direct exposure. It's more likely that my mother sang it to me when I was a bit older.

Two other songs that caught my attention when trying to decipher the music of the year were "Won't you please oblige us with a Bren Gun?" - written and composed by Noel Coward, and "I'll Be Home for Christmas".

The Bren Gun song poked fun at the disorder and shortages of equipment, supplies, and effective leadership that the volunteer defence force the 'Home Guard' experienced during WW2. The Bren Gun, incidentally, was the primary light machine gun used by British forces in WW2. At one time it had a reputation for being too accurate - all the bullets went through the same hole, not what you want in a machine gun.
"I'll Be Home for Christmas" was Bing Crosby's wishful thinking Christmas hit for the year. It must have raised many a teardrop at the time.


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