How Yorkshire's Second World War veterans and civilians faced Christmas in crisis

With the pandemic compared at times to wartime Britain, Laura Reid explores what Christmas was like back then and whether there were really any parallels with life today.

D-Day veteran Ken Cooke, who served with the army.
D-Day veteran Ken Cooke, who served with the army.

It is perhaps only human nature whilst living through the grips of a deadly and life-altering crisis to look back to a time when the UK, and large swathes of the rest of the world, were facing another.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s combative language in his talks this year on the UK’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic have stirred comparisons with a nation in conflict during the Second World War.

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And in both newspaper columns and conversations in the home, commentary has turned time and again to whether there really are parallels between the challenges of 2020 and those faced by the generation who lived through one of the bleakest periods in British history.

Dr Henry Irving of Leeds Beckett University.

For them, the Christmas period was particularly tough, marked, as much of the rest of the war, by rationing and shortages and time apart from loved ones. Yet in the face of adversity, many were determined to make the best of things. “Our ability as humans to take things in our stride, to be resilient, is a really positive message,” says Dr Henry Irving, a senior lecturer in public history at Leeds Beckett University.

His research interests have led him to look at personal diary entries and public opinion surveys from between 1939 and 1945, among other documents, to explore the public’s response to wartime conditions. “People tried to make the most of Christmas and we see that every year during the war,” he says.

Christmas of 1939 was “most like normal”, but from 1940 onwards, the festive period became more profoundly affected by the conflict and its impact. “1940 was the Blitz Christmas, a time at which British civilians themselves were very much on the frontline [due to the Nazi Germany bombing campaign in the UK],” Dr Irving explains.

“1941, 42, 43 onwards were less dangerous in some ways but much more marked by shortages, of food, of toys, and all of that would have had an impact on the way that people were able to celebrate and have Christmas traditions.”

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There were deliberate decisions by some to switch off from war news each Christmas, as well as concerted efforts to make the festivities fun for children. Dr Irving also talks of instances of communities rallying together to pool food rations in an attempt to create something special to eat. “There are people writing in their diaries about how they clubbed together with neighbours to buy the best sugar for making Christmas pudding for example,” he says.

Some of those serving in the forces who spent Christmas where they were stationed say they actually fared better than civilian relatives when it came to a Christmas day menu. “We had a real Christmas dinner in the army which you didn’t have in civvy street, all the trimmings and everything,” says York D-Day veteran Ken Cooke.

The now 95-year-old spent the first festive periods of the war at home with family. With rationing, and little money, he recalls Christmas as being “like an ordinary day except not being at work”.

He joined the forces in 1943, spending Christmas that year at a posting in Richmond. “The officers on Christmas day would serve the ordinary soldier in the canteen; it was a tradition in the forces that they brought the trays of food around. We made the best of things. We had the Christmas dinner then we went and had a beer or tea.”

Mary Todd, known as Molly, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941 and was stationed at RAF Lyneham where she worked as a tailor. “All the forces looked after you food-wise with Christmas dinner,” says the now 101-year-old, who lives in Harrogate. “We had a lovely Christmas day meal. I felt guilty people were on rations.”

For those in service, whether at home or overseas, Christmas would have felt different from their daily wartime routines, says Dr Irving. Efforts to try to recognise the day may have meant extra rations for soldiers and tinsel or decorations at their bases. There was often, he says, an “unofficial pause” in the conflict.

“The Blitz in 1940 is a good example. There wasn’t an official diplomatic effort to try to stop air raids over those Christmas days but the reality was there were very few air raids or air raid warnings at that point.

“Even unofficially, there did seem to be a bit of a recognition that Christmas was a different day. The same would have applied for German and Italian soldiers as well, as it’s an event that’s important across European society.”

When it came to presents, it was often practical items, says veteran Douglas Petty, such as gloves and scarves that were received as gifts. “There were the odd one or two extras but not very much,” he says. “It was a case of parents getting hold of what they could with the awful shortages.”

After joining the RAF at the age of 20, Douglas, now 97 and living in York, says he was unable to spend Christmastime with his family. “For four years, I missed out on Christmas with my parents. It was always difficult because you wondered what was happening and what they were doing. I was a twin and I would wonder about my brother in the army in the Middle East somewhere. I did miss seeing him.”

For nearly all of her service years, Molly was unable to see her husband Billy over the festive period. The pair married by special licence during his first leave from the RAF in 1941 and managed to spend Christmas that year together before he was posted overseas.

Billy visited her in Lyneham, spending the first night sleeping in the guard room before the pair managed to book into a farmhouse a few miles away. “The first Christmas was a really happy one for me,” says Molly. “But my family and Billy’s family were upset we couldn’t spend Christmas with them.”

Her husband was unable to be beside her for the war years that followed, though Molly recalls spending some time over the Christmas periods with her family at home in Sunderland, having been given a 48-hour leave pass.

One year an Australian pilot whose trousers she had shortened gave her a thank you gift of Christmas cake, which she took home with her. “My mam had never seen anything like it,” she says. “My mam made a cake with bits and pieces as best she could but this one made our Christmas.”

Whilst both Ken and Douglas say there are differences between the wartime festive periods and the Christmas we are facing this year, perhaps most starkly with rationing and scarcity, they believe there are attitudes and experiences from the past that can be invoked today.

“One of the things that everyone, civilians as well, had to learn during the war was there were certain things that you could not do,” Douglas says. “One of the ways of helping towards winning the war was people obeying those rules and we seem to have the same situation now with this pandemic. People have to obey the rules or things go to pot.”

“The wartime Christmases, we did the best we could and that’s what wants doing now with this pandemic,” Ken asserts. “People just have to make the best of what they’ve got.”

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