Apart from being in a few air-raids, and dodging odd bombs, there is not much blood and thunder about my war story. No 'Charge of the Light Brigade' stuff. No Dunkirk. No Alamein. No dashing through the enemy lines, and winning the V.C. Nothing like that.
I never even carried a gun. All I carried was a few sticks of chalk, and some sheets of paper. My contribution to the war effort was to visit camps, barracks, airfields, and so on, and help keep up the morale of the boys in the Services by drawing rude cartoons of Hitler & Co, and patriotic pictures of "Tiger" Gort, "Monty", and other well-known Allied "Brass-hats". I invariably finished my little show with a characteristic drawing of Churchill, complete with oversize cigar, while the band, (or usually a solitary piano, more often than not out of tune), weighed in with the stirring tones of "There'll Always be an England", which used to raise the roof. I couldn't go wrong with stuff like that.
I am a professional cartoonist, (professional signature "STIL") in civil life, but when the war started, I decided to lay aside my pen and brush, and become a soldier, or an airman, to do my bit for King and Country. (I couldn't volunteer for the Navy, as I am a very bad sailor, and fell sick if I go for a boat trip in Torbay).
The Medical Board, however, had different ideas after giving me the old once over. I had recently suffered an illness, which apparently had left its effect, and in their opinion I would have been more of a liability than an asset in uniform.
The Chief M.O. said, "You will do more good with a pen, than you would ever do with a sword", and sent me back into civilian life.
I worked out a lightning cartoon act, and went to Drury Lane for an audition with Ensa. My caricatures of war characters were accompanied by appropriate musical accompaniment, "Whose Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?" for Hitler, "Roll out the Barrel" for Goering, "Donkey's Serenade" for "Lord Haw-Haw," and so on, with of course, patriotic music for our leaders.
I remember the stage fright I suffered waiting in the wings for my cue to go on, and the feeling of being in the middle of the Sahara, when I stood all alone in the centre of the vast stage.
The hard-boiled judges sitting out front must have thought my set suitably entertaining for the troops,however, because before long I was moving from camp to camp, air-field to air-field, gun-sight to gun-sight.
Sometimes there ware shows in huge hangers with an audience of hundreds of airmen. Other times there were shows in isolated parts, with an improvised stage, and an audience of a dozen or so.
On occasions the sirens would sound in the middle of a performance, and we would all go underground until the Jerries had passed on. I remember one poor young devil of an airman, who didn't get under cover fast enough, and lost a leg. That made me feel very sad and bitter, and I cursed at the folly and uselessness of the damn fool war.
Wars would be fine if nobody got hurt. I recall the jolly times we had in the 'Messes'. There is a spirit of camaraderie in war-time which seems to vanish with the "All Clear" of Peace. In war it doesn't matter a damn whether you are a Duke or a dustman. One touch of bomb or shell makes the whole world kin! But when Peace comes, Alistair-Smythe Esq, suddenly remembers that he is on a higher social register than Alf Smith, his war-time colleague, and becomes embarrassed when he bumps into him in the street.
War wipes away an awful lot of façade. Bullies become cowards. Timid, inoffensive people become heroes and heroines. Virgins become harlots, and harlots become Angels of Mercy. It brings out the best in most people, and the worst in others.
I remember the wonderful acts of warm humanity by ordinary men and women. I remember also a woman who professed to be a devout Christian. She filled her house with Texts and 'Holy' pictures, and regularly attended her Place of worship. No doubt she could chant all the Psalms and quote almost any passage in the Bible, but when the 'Blitz' came, and a woman evacuee carrying a small infant, came to the door in an exhausted state, this Christian(?) lady never even asked her in to rest. She was an exception, but it goes to show, doesn't it?
In contrast, I recall an experience in a shelter during an air-raid. We were trapped ilke rats in an inferno like Hell itself, expecting every moment to be our last. Sick with fear we waited. We were nearer God then we had ever been. And who was it rallied us, kept alive our faith, and eventually led us to safety?
A rather vulgar little man, who before the bombs started dropping, had caused distasteful looks to be turned in his direction by the frequent use of a 'Pygmalian' expression.
And there was this little chap, who had probably never entered a Church in his life, (except perhaps to be married,) taking command of the situation, comforting the men and women with words of courage, and shepherding them under his wing like a hen with her chicks.
In the semi-darkness of the unholy shelter he shone forth like a light, and I have a feeling that when the Day of Reckoning comes that common little man will have as much chance of entering the Kingdom of Heaven as any man on earth.
I can picture him now, standing at the foot of the steps of the air-raid shelter, looking upwards and yelling defiance at the unseen German bombers overhead, while rubble clattered down the steps, and settled round his feet.
It was not in London, or Coventry, but in the Cathedral City of Exeter, during the 'Blitz' of 1942, when half-a-dozen of us, including two elderly maiden ladies, (it was extraordinary how they managed to be there), were trapped in a shelter beneath the imposing glass Arcade in the main High Street, not far from the Cathedral itself.
In the ordinary way Exeter at night is usually the personification of peace and quiet, and it was a bit of a nerve on the part of the Jerries coming along with their confounded bombers, shattering the serenity of the place, and getting people out of bed in the early hours of the morning. They didn't seem to care a damn, and plastered the City until most of it was a shambles, with many goodly citizens buried underneath the ruins.
Bombs were whistling down all the time, and the Arcade above us collapsed in a cascade of falling glass, with fragments tinkling down the steps. The whole structure came tumbling down on top of us, and as far as we could tell, we were trapped underneath a flaming Hell above.
I guess we were all scared sick, except perhaps the common little man. I know I was, but I had a kind of feeling inside that as an Englishman, I had to pretend that I wasn't, and even forced a sickly grin at the little man's jokes, while all the time I felt sick in my stomach, and silently prayed.
A whistle and a thump, and the Post Office next door took a direct hit. It was getting much too close for comfort. Instinctively we backed against the all, the two old ladies huddled together in a corner like a couple of frightened mice. The little man didn't back away. He still stood there at the foot of the steps, ankle deep in glass and rubble, cracking crude jokes to keep up our morale, and yelling obscenities at the Jerries above.
"C'mon you bastards, 'ave another go - you couldn't hit a pussy!" he shouted , and grinned at us as though he was having a whale of a time.
Undoubtedly a common little person. Not the sort to be accepted in polite society, and certainly not a suitable visitor to the august precincts of the Cathedral Close.
The two maiden ladies, who would have been shocked by his language in ordinary circumstances, appeared to be unaffected. They were too close to death, and little things like swearing didn't seem to matter any more.
I found myself wondering abstractedly what the Bishop in his Palace around the corner, would be doing. Praying probably, just like me, but not under his breath. Bishops can pray audibly without anybody taking notice, but an ordinary bloke feels a bit of a twerp praying out loud in company, even when he is facing sudden death. Queer isn't it?
Then suddenly it was all over. the "All Clear" wailed, and the drone of the Jerry planes died away in the distance. Danté had tired of his Inferno, and had gone to bed. The sudden silence was eerie. When I say silence, we could still hear the crackle of the flames, but that was nothing compared to the "whoomph" of the bombs, and the roar of the planes overhead.
Somehow we managed to scramble up those shattered steps, with the little man leading the way. I shall never forget the sight when we reached the top. We were in a mass of fire. Flames to the right of us, flames to the left of us, volleyed and thundered. Where the High Street had stood one hour before, was now a vast cauldron of blazing ruins.
I glanced across to where my Studio had once been. It had disappeared, and only a bare skeleton framework remained. Despair gripped me as I thought of my life's work gone up in flames. It was fantastic, unbelievable, but we had no time to spare in which to contemplate the devastation.
We ran the gauntlet between huge seas of fire, until we reached safety, and a near-by Inn, which had mercifully escaped the fury of the raid.
The landlord and his lady ushered us inside, and plied us with drinks. It was well outside Licensing Hours, but there were no policemen to bother us. They had too much to do elsewhere, and wouldn't have cared anyway.
The two old ladies had probably never imbibed in their lives before, but were persuaded to have a little drop, because it would do them good. They put back their whiskies with relish, and didn't say 'No' to another. Secretly, now that the worst was over, I believe they were beginning to enjoy themeselves. It is pretty certain that they had never had such an exciting time in the whole of their lives!
Contiued with One Yank and they're off
© 2011 Georgia Shorrock
George Stillings, or STIL, as he was known, was a talented cartoonist who worked for the Western Times, Express and Echo and News of the World. He is best known in Exeter for his 'Any Gum Chum' and other cartoon books, and his work in the Echo. This memory was written in 1960, but his archive does not record if it was ever published.
Note - the shelter that STIL was in during the blitz would have been the Underground Passages. It is also likely, from his description, that the pub was the Horse and Groom, now the site of the King Billy.
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