Malcolm Barker: D-Day and the beginning of the end for my wartime childhood

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D-DAY, June 6, 1944. Can it really be 70 years ago? That morning, dry and sunny, our father called his three children from our beds and told us that the Allied invasion of France had begun. He declared it was a day we would remember all our lives, which we accepted without demur. On this occasion, our faith was justified.

The Normandy landings had been announced in the even cadences of a BBC news-reader, probably John Snagge, on the wireless. Its status as a great event was underlined for us by father’s excitement, of which I had not seen the like since young Len Hutton took 364 runs off the Australians at the Oval.

Dad was then in his early 40s. He had brought his family back to Whitby in 1943 after six years away from the town working as a reporter. He had been asked for help by his father, who was bringing out the Whitby Gazette virtually single-handed, his editorial staff having gone to war.

Whitby was not as we remembered from holidays. There was no access to the beach, and the bridges linking the piers and their extensions had been blown up. The dredger Esk had gone, and was busy keeping the sea lanes open in Scapa Flow. Dora Walker, the coast’s first woman fishing skipper, was still long-lining from her coble, Good Faith. She recalled in her book They Labour Mightily that the bigger keel-boats had been requisitioned for service elsewhere. Last to go was the old Pilot Me, leaving an empty quay.

Instead of a busy port, the old town was an armed camp. Its principal hotels, the Royal and the Metropole, along with many smaller ones, were requisitioned for military occupation. The Army did not hesitate to wreak havoc in its quest for accommodation. It took possession of four large houses forming a terrace behind the Metropole, and knocked them through from end to end to form a barrack block.

The Government put them back as single properties after the war, only for the quartet to be reunited by the Newton family, who opened their Saxonville Hotel at No 1 and gradually extended a thriving business through all four. We lived in No 4 for a time after it had been derequisitioned, and thought it must have been home for ATS girls, for bedrooms were painted pink.

Whitby was not blitzed, but from time to time a single German plane would drop bombs, as though the crew had decided to get rid of them before heading home. In these occasional and indiscriminate visitations the railway station was hit, houses were wrecked and a stick of eight bombs was dropped in the area of Flowergate, destroying the Urban Council offices and killing five people.

This was nothing compared with the fate of another “east coast town”, the only description of Kingston-upon-Hull permitted by censorship. Whitby and district people opened their homes to 4,000 Hull evacuees in 1939, and host-families learned what was going on there from those who remained for the duration. Hull suffered 82 raids, 1,258 civilians were killed, and 150,000 were made homeless.

It was my parents’ custom to invite servicemen and women who turned up for Sunday services at St Ninian’s Church to join us for Sunday dinner, and thus introduce them to Mother’s Yorkshire puddings. In this way we made many new friends, including Victor Marigold from London, who introduced us to peanut butter, and Wally, an American, who turned up one day with a Jeep, which he parked in front of a disused coach-house and left for me to play with.

We might have gathered a great movement was afoot when Wally turned up in early June and said he was sorry, but the US Army needed its Jeep back. There was other evidence of a mass departure. Moving south to embarkation ports from training areas in East Anglia were men of the 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, whose insignia, a polar bear on an ice floe, derived from two years’ service in Iceland.

This was very much a Yorkshire Territorial formation, and included two battalions of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, one of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, all with roots deep in the West Riding. The Division distinguished itself in the furious fighting in Normandy. When the break-out came, “the Polar Bears” served on the left flank of Montgomery’s drive across the Seine, and on to Belgium and Holland.

The Division led the liberation of Le Havre in early September, 1944. The port was reckoned the strongest fortress in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, and after an Allied bombardment that left its centre in ruins, and 2,000 inhabitants dead or missing, the infantry went in, taking 12,000 prisoners. Later that month there was an individual distinction for Cpl John William Harper, aged 28, from Hatfield Woodhouse, near Doncaster, who was awarded a posthumous VC for acts of extraordinary courage.

As time went by, we recognised that D-Day had indeed been the beginning of the end. Gradually, wartime regulations eased. In August, 1944, the beach reopened, and in September the street lights shone again. The keel-boats returned, Easter Morn, Galilee and the rest. So did the dredger Esk, to tackle a silted–up harbour. Soon it was VE Day, and we trooped from school up the 199 steps to St Mary’s Parish Church for a service of thanksgiving. Her bells, after long silence, once again sent joyous sound rippling across the harbour. With great courage, determined leadership, and at high cost, peace had come to Europe.

Malcolm Barker is a former editor of the Yorkshire Evening Post.