WWII Plus – Mike Petty

April 2015 meeting report: Speaker Mike Petty: writer on local history and previously in charge of the Local Collection at Cambridge Central Library
Mike started his talk by saying that later this year he will be delivering three talks at the Octavia Hill Museum as part of the Nene Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership; the talks will be: 1. Who built the Bedford Level? 2. How do we find out? 3. Who lived alongside? Mike also explained that he has now stopped writing his weekly columns in the Cambridgeshire paper but all the columns are available and searchable on the internet.
Mike also referred to the proposed relocation of the County Archives and Local Collection to new premises in Ely.
The main talk was about the importance of local newspapers as a source of information for family historians and particularly the amount of information that is available for the Fens in the 1940’s. Mike used illustrations from the local papers to follow the course of the war and to give a different slant to the accepted view of some of the stories we think we know about. For instance, few of us knew that when it seemed that war was imminent in early 1939 children had been evacuated to the Cambridge area and then returned home only to be evacuated again in September 1939 when the war started in earnest. There were lots of pictures of children with their luggage labels.
Farming underwent an enormous change because whereas for the previous two decades there had been an agricultural depression farm produce was in demand and the land under the plough in the Isle of Ely rose from 12 million acres to 19 million acres and there were a lot of stories about new land being ploughed and photographs of bog oaks being dug out and laid along roadsides. There were also stories and photographs of Land Army girls doing their month long training at the Cambridge University Farm. Mike said that he had been talking about this at an earlier talk and one of the audience said that she had been at work at Burwell and as a boat approached the girls were asked to stop work and line up – the King and Queen stepped off the boat and they spoke to them and thanked them for the work they were doing.
Newspapers also provide huge amounts of information about what was going on in communities with photographs of the Home Guard, fund raising for Spitfires, Hurricanes and ships – local communities often supported an individual plane or ship.
There was also a great deal of contemporary “anonymised” information about the amount of air raids and war damage that occurred. For instance the first city in the country to be bombed was Ely but it is referred to as a city in Cambridgeshire and Cambridge is a town in Cambridgeshire. A terrace of houses in Cambridge was hit and among the dead were children evacuated from London …. Although no detail is given about actual places the Air Raid Wardens’ records were published after the war and give precise locations and detail of the damage.
D-Day was planned in Cambridge when Montgomery and Eisenhower met there and military exercises took place on rivers and local people remember a boat sinking on the Ouse with significant loss of life.
Another aspect of local life was the coming of the US forces and the number of POW camps both German and Italian; many of the POW’s became integrated into local life as they worked on farms and some stayed on after the war and married local girls.
The end of the war in Europe was marked in local papers but as many local regiments were in the Far East the coverage was tempered and more subdued than might have been expected.
Mike concluded his talk with references to the appalling winter of 1947 with images of the flooding of the Fens as result of the exceptionally heavy winter snow followed by a sudden thaw and then a northerly gale that prevented the tide in the Wash going out – the flood defences were breached and an area of 100 square miles was under water with houses and lives and livelihoods destroyed. The armed forces were deployed and the breaches in the flood walls were filled with army tanks which were then buried to create solid barriers. The newspaper images of the flood and its aftermath illustrate the power of the local press very effectively as each image is worth far more than a thousand words.
[Margaret Lake ]

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