Saturday, 30 December 2017

Why Norman Wisdom's suit didn't fit

You can still occasionally hear the phrase "demob happy." What it means is the feeling that you are about to be released from something which has weighed down your spirits - in particular the experience of life at war. It is difficult to imagine what it was like to grow up during World War Two. You were old enough to understand everything but too young to do anything about it. 

Walton, Liverpool after the blitz
My mother was nearly 13 when war broke out in 1939 (she was born in November 1926) . She tells me “We thought it would all be over in a few weeks”. As a young woman she was genuinely afraid of invasion – with German troops coming to kill them in their beds. Night after night they saw the flames over Liverpool which was bombarded – people lost their homes and all their possessions and the refugees from the fires came to Aughton’s village church for safety and protection. 

School life during the war
During the war there was only part-time school – mornings only – punctuated by practice with gas masks.
As time went on and my mother grew older she could do things to help with the war effort - if there was an air raid over Liverpool she would put on her Girl Guide uniform and go to the local church to help those fleeing from the fire. Among other duties she would take down and record people’s names and warm up milk for the babies’ bottles. 

But she wanted to get more involved and she joined the armed forces as soon as she was old enough to do so. It wasn’t until March 1945 that she was old enough to sign up.

Queen Elizabeth visits her daughter in the ATS
Nearly all women wanted to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service commonly known as the WRENs. But there were no longer any places – so my mother and her friend joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service or ATS as it was known.

Although we now know that the war was about to come to an end there was still plenty to do to get supplies and ordinance out to the troops and this is what my mother was involved in - typing orders for the deployment of tanks, and other vehicles such as bathhouses and de-lousing vehicles which needed to be sent to the front. The family joke was that as soon as my mother had joined the war effort it was only a matter of time before Hitler gave in and it ended!

The end in sight 
The death of Hitler was announced on April 30th 1945 but creating a peaceful Europe was not an overnight thing. The indicators were there but depending on where you were “peace breaking out” was a gradual incident by incident process and treaty by treaty. The German High Command surrendered on the 2nd of May, and signed formal papers on the 8th.  Victory in Europe day was celebrated on the same day.

Crowds at Piccadilly on VE Day
More than 1 million people celebrated in the streets to mark the end of the European part of the war

It is said that Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and her sister Princess Margaret were allowed to wander incognito among the crowds and take part in the celebrations. There was a recent film made on this subject and while it is an intriguing thought I personally doubt this would have been allowed to happen.
Planning for peace
At the end of the Second World War, there were approximately five million servicemen and servicewomen in the British armed forces. The de-mobilisation and re-assimilation of this vast force back into civilian life was one of the first and greatest challenges facing the postwar British government.

The demobilisation plan
The wartime Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin was the chief architect of the demobilisation plan, which was unveiled to the public on September 22, 1944. Servicemen and servicewomen who were to be released from the armed forces were given a number (my mother was in Group 66). This was calculated from their age and the months they had served in uniform. A small number of so-called 'key men' whose occupational skills were vital to postwar reconstruction were released ahead of their turn. Married women and men aged fifty or more were also given immediate priority.

As a young unmarried woman my mother would have been lower down in the list of priorities than some others. She remembers being sent to Edinburgh as part of the demob process where they had lectures and outings and were able to see the operetta “Song of Norway” written by Robert Wright and George Forrest.  

The Demob suit

A demob suit was a suit of civilian clothes given to all men when they were demobbed. The firm of Montague Burton made the suits and Burton's tailors are still with us today. It is also where the term “the full Monty” comes from although in its original sense it meant the full set of clothing and supplies – not as in the film of the same name – the full birthday suit! Although the suits were of good quality, the need to clothe millions of demobilising servicemen led to supply problems that caused some men to receive suits that were not of the correct size. As a result, the demob suit became a common subject in British comedy of the post-war years. Sleeves and trousers too short or too long and jackets too tight around the chest.

An example is Norman Wisdom’s stage suit which was tight and only just fitted across the chest.

Frankie Howerd one of a whole generation of British comedians who started their career immediately after demobilisation, performed in a badly fitting demob suit, possibly because he had nothing else to wear. This became part of his stage persona - heightening the delight of his audience in the awkward character he had created.

I was born in July 1950 – after the end of the Second World War in Europe but on the day that the Korean War started. Victory in Europe and the peace that followed is dear to my heart although I was born well after it was announced. I now know what a privilege it was to grow up in the 1950s while the welfare state was being established and the foundations of a free Europe were being built.

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