A Sociological Autobiography: 2 – Father at War

By | June 14, 2013

It is UK-centric to date the outbreak of the second world war from September of 1939 since Nazi expansionism had already led to brutal suffering elsewhere in Europe, but it was in September that my father, Ron, left Brown, Jenkinson & Co and set about volunteering for the armed services. He had long worn spectacles and this was a non-negotiable handicap in the days before contact lenses. He chose the Navy, knowing full well that wearing glasses would disqualify him from captaining a fighting ship: captains with smashed lenses and impaired vision were not an option. After training as a sub-Lieutenant he was promoted to Lieutenant RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve). He was to serve in Contraband Control. The Directors of Brown, Jenkinson & Co were generous in their letter of commendation, dated 15 July 1940:

By his efforts he gained rapid promotion and a good knowledge of the agency side of a shipbroker’s work. In order to make him more useful, we sent him to Germany for six months to improve his knowledge of the language and to gain an idea of the German end of the Hamburg-London Line, A Kirsten & Co, for whom we were acting as London agents. From reports we had from Hamburg we learned to our satisfaction that Mr Scambler had not wasted his time, and he now speaks German fluently and is able to conduct commercial correspondence in that language.

At the outbreak of war we had with very great reluctance to dispense with Mr Scambler’s services, but we were able to recommend him to the Contraband Control, and he was engaged for duty at one of the bases.

We can recommend him for any position of trust, and he will conscientiously carry out any duties entrusted to him. At the same time he is well able to use his own initiative to get a job done’.

In practice this meant a posting to Trinidad, where his task was to help check foreign shipping for the smuggling of armaments and means of sustenance for German communities in Central and South America. If ‘being at war’ and resigning a promising company position comprised the negatives, an assignment in the Caribbean was a positive. Surviving photographs suggest a tropical paradise. Margaret was to say later that the Trinidad interlude changed Ron, sapping some of his pre-war energy and enthusiasm. This may in part have been down to the malaria that sent him intermittently to bed with a fever in subsequent years, or maybe it was a consequence of an otherwise exhilarating time-out. He and his fellow officers had servants to cater for their daily needs and when off-duty explored, played makeshift games of soccer and cricket, dived and swam naked in vivid blue-green pools. The contrast with a grim, post-war Britain of unemployment, austerity and rationing must have been acute.

That Ron and Margaret missed each other is apparent from their surviving correspondence. And Margaret’s lonely and anxious wait was tempered by few of the distractions afforded to Ron. She had always wanted to be a hairdresser, but to her parents, Arthur and Caroline, this was a trade beneath the family’s station. So on leaving school she dutifully acquired qualifications in shorthand and typing, the lot of many girls before and since. She and Ron married on 27 January 1940, during his training for the RNVR and a few months before he left for Trinidad. Ron was 28, Margaret 26. They found a small property to rent in Falmouth, intending to start a family when the war ended. As for so many in similar circumstances, the wait was to be longer than anticipated. Margaret could only be patient. She received a measure of support, financial as well as emotional, from her parents and in-laws.

Ron remained in Trindad until 1943, when there was an unexpected turn of events. A naval clerical officer in London chanced on Ron’s file and made a note that this bespectacled Lieutenant languishing in Contraband Control in the West Indies not only possessed expert knowledge of German shipping but spoke the language fluently. Might more effective use be made of his skills? The result was a new and altogether more challenging posting. He was dispatched to mingle incognito with the sizeable German migrant populations in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. The brief was to present as a non-German speaking British civilian, all the time listening in and picking up on the more purposeful of local conversations. It was a form of spying in that he not only reported back but cultivated indigenous contacts of his own, one of the most fruitful of which was the madam of a local brothel whose employees were recruited to quiz and feed back on the  pillow-talk, gossip and activities of their German clients.

It was an assignment with risks attached. Ron was given a small handgun (which I was to come across decades later, together with two packets of live bullets, when it fell to me to empty and dispose of his widower house). His passport covering the years from 1943 reveals intelligence-based sojourns not only Brazil but in Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, Peru, Equador and Chile. He told me many years later – his oath of secrecy was not taken lightly – of more than one perilous, low and bumpy flight over the Andes, his naval uniform neatly stowed in his baggage: while possession of a uniform would have exposed him as a non-civilian, if he was ‘discovered’ his status as a naval officer might afford him some protection. In the event his intelligence remained clandestine.

Another skill-specific assignment followed months later, on the cusp of 1944, less hazardous but no less enthralling. He was instructed to fly back from South America to London to work in the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty. In a bunker deep underground he was one of two officers working under the command of an Admiral and charged to track the movements of German ships across the world’s oceans. His first-hand knowledge of German ships and shipping from his days at Brown, Jenkinson & Co was now tapped more directly. With the help of assorted maps and coloured pins, these three officers, on rota duty round the clock, had to be able to respond instantly to requests for data, ranging from queries about the precise positioning of German ships to how far each could travel with a full load of fuel and how far its guns, or aircraft, could reach and do damage to allied targets. They were vital calculations for allied merchant as well as naval fleets. This work too was covered by the ‘official secrets’ legislation, so it was years later that I was able to put at least a few pieces of the jigsaw together.

When the war eventually came to it’s untidy end Ron returned to Brown, Jenkinson & Co, if more in hope than expectation. Nor was it just his firm that had hollowed out. In his aptly titled Austerity Britain, 1945-51, David Kynaston lists features of the lifeworld in Britain in 1945 that remind even a sociologist of the pace of social change as well as his natal habitat:

‘No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no computers, no mobiles, no duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks. Four Indian restaurants. Shops on every corner, pubs on every corner, cinemas in every high street, red telephone boxes, Lyons Corner Houses, trams, trolley-buses, steam trains. Woodbines, Craven ‘A’, Senior Service, smoke smog, Vapex inhalant. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle, hung out to dry. Central heating rare, coke boilers, water geysers, the coal fire, the hearth, the home, chilblains common. Abortion illegal, gay relationships illegal, suicide illegal, capital punishment legal. White faces everywhere. Back-to-backs, narrow cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, no high-rises. Arterial roads, suburban semis, the march of the pylon. Austin Sevens, Ford Eights, no seat belts, Triumph motorcycles with sidecars. A Bakelite wireless in the home, ‘Housewives’ Choice’, or ‘Workers’ Playtime’ or ‘ITMA’ on the air, televisions almost unknown, no programmes to watch, the family eating together. Milk of Magnesia, Vick Vapour Rub, Friar’s Balsam, Fynnon Salts, Eno’s, Germolene. Suits and hats, dress and hats, cloth caps and mufflers, no leisurewear, no ‘teenagers’. Heavy coins, heavy shoes, heavy suitcases, heavy tweed coats, heavy leather footballs, no unbearable lightness of being. Meat rationed, butter rationed, lard rationed, margerine rationed, sugar rationed, tea rationed, cheese rationed, jam rationed, eggs rationed, sweets rationed, soap rationed, clothes rationed. Make do and mend’.

All Brown, Jenkinson & Co were able to offer Ron, German shipping having been decimated, was a temporary tying up of loose ends. He was sent to the firm’s office in a flat and desolate Hamburg. Margaret was once again abandoned, although by this time she had left Falmouth for kin and comfort in North London. As for many their early years together had been spent apart; but at least they had survived. As for many too, Ron was on the look out for work.

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