The recent unveiling of a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas, dedicated to those who worked in British coal mines during the Second World War, was another reminder of the often unsung sacrifices made during wartime. By late 1943 coal stocks were running low and in order to ensure that the war effort could still be fuelled, the Minister for Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin was charged to enhance the mining labour force.
Bevin Boys - Training, Feb 1945. By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer (Public domain or Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons
Bevin decided that a ballot amongst men aged 18-25 would be the fairest and most sensible way of selecting miners, and that the selection group should be as wide as possible. As Lord President of the (Privy) Council, though, it was Clement Attlee, Deputy Prime Minister of the wartime coalition, who circulated the Cabinet memorandum that forwarded the idea (CAB 66/43/31). Ballotees would attend a four-week training session, after which they would work in mines, in physical roles supporting miners (they wouldn’t actually mine the coalface).
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I never cease to get a sense of excitement from opening newly-accessioned files for the first time. Occasionally, documents released to The National Archives will fundamentally change our view of history, but more often, they add colour and fill in the blanks to events and personalities with which we’re already familiar.
Today’s release of almost 500 files from the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under-Secretary’s Department (PUSD) is a good case in point. Among the papers, is an extraordinarily entertaining account of ‘Operation Bracelet’, Winston Churchill’s August 1942 mission to Moscow and first face-to-face meeting with Stalin.
Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 (catalogue ref: INF 14/447)
The meeting came at a crucial point in the war and Churchill was there to inform Stalin of Allied plans for the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) as well as delivering the bad news that there would be no ‘second front’ in Europe. Accompanying Churchill on the trip was Sir Alec Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, who later relayed his take on events in a letter to Viscount Halifax (FO 1093/247).
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From Banana to Vesuvius…
When one thinks of the RAF in the Second World War, most people have visions of squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes over Kent in 1940, or the Dambusters of 617 squadron. The Operational Record Books (‘ORBs’ or more formally RAF Forms 540 and 541) of the squadrons have always been very popular records and are now online. But nearly every unit of the RAF had to compile and submit ORBs, and the majority of these units were not squadrons at all, but an amazing variety of other units, and their ORBs have been gathered together in record series AIR 29 as ‘Miscellaneous Units’.
1 Armoured Car Company, Khormaksar, Aden 1946 (AIR 29/57)
For the last two years, a small team of staff have been working through the AIR 29s up to the end of the Second World War, improving and expanding the catalogue descriptions, to make the records easier to locate. Many of the original descriptions were very brief, and relied heavily on unexplained abbreviations, which didn’t make searching very easy (anyone want to guess at what ‘AACU’ or ‘Beam ATF’ stood for?).
In going through the first 1,212 pieces of the series, we have found units completely missed from the catalogue, unravelled all of the abbreviations, corrected dates and detailed the changes of unit name or location. A typical description before the project was ‘AIR 29/811: No. 428, Buc’. This has now been expanded to ’428 Repair and Salvage Unit, based at Buc, France (RSU)’. Unit abbreviations were retained as they often appear on airmen’s service records from this period. Place-name descriptions were also improved so that researchers can use the records even if they do not know which units were in which locations. Continue reading »
D-Day, 6 June 1944, the turning point of the Second World War, was a victory of arms, a heroic feat of military strategy and raw courage. But it was also a triumph for a different kind of skill: it was an astonishing feat of paperwork.
Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents, deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy. It was the most sophisticated and successful deception operation ever carried out, ensuring that Hitler kept an entire army awaiting a fake invasion, saving thousands of lives, and securing an Allied victory at the most critical juncture in the war.
The Double Cross system depended on a filing and archive system that was vast, complex and meticulous. It is not too much to say that without the extraordinary record-keeping system devised by the spy-runners, the great D-Day deception might have failed, and the history of the 20th century would have been very different.
The great British talent for keeping and maintaining records played a vital, but largely unacknowledged role in winning the Second World War. Most of the wartime files relating to the Double Cross deception, once top secret, have now been released to The National Archives. That material has formed the evidential basis for my last three books: Agent Zigzag, Operation Mincemeat and Double Cross. Each of these books tells a story extracted from the wartime files. Indeed, without this huge trove of documents, these books could not have been written.
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When thinking of war posters, the slogans ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ or ‘Make-do and Mend‘ might spring to mind, or perhaps the darker ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’ During the First and Second World Wars, posters were a vital method of communication; the government used them to increase morale, reduce panic and boost both agricultural and industrial output.
You could argue that they’re now embedded in the culture of the country. It’s highly likely every one of us will recognise Lord Kitchener’s ‘I Want You’ designed by Alfred Leete, in 1914. We have a collection of over 150 posters at Manchester Archives.
'Which is it be, Bonds or Bondage?' poster
Take this poster from the collection ‘Which is it to be; Bonds or Bondage?’ issued by the War Savings Office in Salford (date not known), which is unique to the area. Continue reading »