May 1945, Bergen Belsen and an image of Vermeer-like beauty by Sergeant Charles H Hewitt

Richard Maddox

LIGHT TRICKLES INTO A BUILDING AT BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP in northern Germany.

It gently falls on a group of women and children preparing to bathe and then – to underline the fact that this is not a painting by Johannes Vermeer or Caravaggio or William Russell Flint – it picks out the stripes of their prison camp uniforms.

A soldier stands almost hidden in the shadows.

AT BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP a group of women and children prepare to bathe. Image by Sergeant Charles Hewitt. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM Catalogue reference BU 5460. Original source http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215297

AT BERGEN-BELSEN CONCENTRATION CAMP a group of women and children prepare to bathe. Image by Sergeant Charles Hewitt. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM Catalogue reference BU 5460. Original source http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205215297

He is not watching them. He is guarding them.

His eyes are on the photographer Sergeant Charles H Hewitt from the British Army’s No.5 Army Film and Photographic Unit.

And now 75 years later that same soldier seems to watch us.

The camp had been liberated on 15 April by troops of the British Second Army.

They found some 60,000 prisoners suffering from starvation, typhus, typhoid and dysentry. Huts with a capacity for thirty individuals held as many as 500. Unburied dead littered the huge camp and hundreds were dying each day. (1)

A BRITISH SOLDIER STANDS IN FRONT OF A SIGN erected at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945 by Britsh military forces. A similar sign in German was also erected. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference BU 6955. Image by Sergeant Charles H Hewitt, No.5 AFPU, British Army. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196979.

A BRITISH SOLDIER STANDS IN FRONT OF A SIGN erected at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945 by Britsh military forces. A similar sign in German was also erected. Image Copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference BU 6955. Image by Sergeant Charles H Hewitt, No.5 AFPU, British Army. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196979.

In an effort to control infection the liberators burnt much of the camp. (2)

For many of the prisoners this will be a familiar routine with just the language and the uniforms of the soldiers being different.

For some it will be the start of a journey that will see them travel across continent, struggle with almost unbelievable loss as they regain the Nazi regime tried to take from them.

And perhaps for at least a few of those pictured above this day in May 1945 will have felt a little different and a little hope will have warmed them together with the sunshine.

After the war Charles Hewitt worked for Picture Post – a British magazine specialising in photojournalism. When Picture Post folded in 1957 Hewitt found employment with the BBC contributing to its current affairs television programmes. (3)

He died in 1987 aged 72.

In May 2019 some three hundred of his photographs owned by his daughter were sold by an English auction house. (4)

Sources

(1) https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205229738 – retrieved 7 July 2019

(2) https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-liberation-of-bergen-belsen – retrieved 7 July 2019

(3) https://antique-collecting.co.uk/2019/05/10/rare-photos-capture-hidden-london – retrieved 7 July 2019

(4) https://www.mutualart.com/Artist/C–H–Hewitt/98329D97A6B936A0/AuctionResults?Type=Sold_Unsold – retrieved 7 July 2019-

 

An army underground – The Bevin Boys

Richard Maddox

THEY WORE NO GOLD BRAID or carried weapons beyond a pick and shovel and yet they were a vast army. Their daily battles took them far below their homeland. They returned home each night their bodies aching and their skins scrubbed clean and yet their lungs black with their fighting.

TWO ‘BEVIN BOYS’ and a passing coal miner near the lamp store at Ollerton Colliery, Northamptonshire in February 1945. Note the sandwich tin and water bottle carried by the man on the left and the Davy lamps hanging from the belts of the men on the right. Image copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 23743. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196937.

TWO ‘BEVIN BOYS’ and a passing coal miner near the lamp store at Ollerton Colliery, Northamptonshire in February 1945. Note the sandwich tin and water bottle carried by the man on the left and the Davy lamps hanging from the belts of the men on the right. Image copyright © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 23743. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196937.

They were the Bevin Boys. Men who were conscripted or volunteered to work in the coal mines of the United Kingdom.

In 1943 with coal production dangerously low as thousand of miners had left the coal industry to serve in the armed forces or undertake better paid safer, cleaner war work Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his Minister of Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin to devise a scheme to improve coal stocks. (1)

It was decided to that 40,000 men were needed and this number raised by diverting 10% of men eligible for conscription in the armed services into unskilled manual work in country’s mines. Those diverted were eligible men who’s National Service Registration Number ended with number drawn in a monthly ballot. These numbers were boosted by men who volunteered for mine work as an option to serving in the Armed Forces. (2)

After medical examinations, travel warrants and instructions quickly followed to report to one of the thirteen Government Training Centre Collieries in England, Wales and Scotland. Failure to comply with the order was an offence punishable by prosecution and possible imprisonment.

As with conscription into the armed services, each man was given medical examinations and then sent on a training course at one of thirteen collieries in Britain. This course included classroom-based lectures, experience of procedures on the surface and underground as well as physical training. Once qualified the men were allocated to a working pit. (3)

The scheme drew in men from all sections of society and a geographically-wide area, many with only a minimal understanding of what mining was. Initially the scheme produced resentment not only amongst some of the men who had been expecting to served in the Armed Forces but also amongst the families of miners who had relatives conscripted into the fighting services and serving far from home only to see other mainly unqualified men work in the mines and the general public who were suspicious of men eligible to serve in the Army, Navy or Air Force who did not do so.

Unlike their professional miner colleagues Bevin Boys were issued with a safety helmet, overalls and a pair of steel-capped working boots. Tools and other equipment had to be purchased by the individual.

Given the general lack of appropriate experience of the men drafted under the scheme most worked away from the skilled tasks at the coal face and were utilised on maintenance or general haulage tasks.

With victory in sight the ballot ended in May 1945 although with continuing shortages in the immediate post-war period the last Bevin Boys were not released until three years later. Unlike their colleagues in military service they were not awarded medals or had an automatic right of re-employment in their peace-time occupations.

For more than fifty years the 48,000 ‘Bevin Boys’ were largely forgotten or wrongly seen as conscientious objectors – only a very amount of their number objected to military service on the grounds of conscience. (4)

Approximately 43% of men on the scheme were chosen from the ballot with the remainder being volunteers from either civilian life or those who transferred from military duties. (5)

A MEMORIAL to the ‘Bevin Boys’ at the National Memorial Arboretum, Lichfield England. Image copyright © C Sweet. IWM catalogue reference WM 64364. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/64364.

A MEMORIAL to the ‘Bevin Boys’ at the National Memorial Arboretum, Lichfield England. Image copyright © C Sweet. IWM catalogue reference WM 64364. Original source https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/64364.

Official recognition of the men’s work and sacrifice has been slow in coming. The fiftieth anniversary of the last members being released from the scheme occurred in 1998 and that year saw the first official participation of Bevan Boys at the annual Remembrance Day Parade at London’s Cenotaph in Whitehall. (6)

Today it is possible for members of the scheme or their widows to receive an official commemorative badge from the British government, provided that the men were alive when the scheme was introduced in June 2007. (7)

Sources

(1) http://www.bevinboysassociation.co.uk/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(2) https://museum.wales/articles/2008-01-03/Remembering-the-Bevin-Boys-in-the-Second-World-War/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(3) http://www.theforgottenconscript.co.uk/who-were-the-bevin-boys/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(4) https://museum.wales/articles/2008-01-03/Remembering-the-Bevin-Boys-in-the-Second-World-War/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(5) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/615932/Bevin_Boy_Badge_Questions_and_Answers_QA_for_Gov.uk___with_1_Vic_St_address_added.pdf – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(6) https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/bevin-boys/z7qnqp3 – retrieved 17 November 2019.

(7) https://www.gov.uk/apply-for-bevin-boys-veterans-badge – retrieved 17 November 2019.

More Information

In addition to the sources listed above, the following links provide information that maybe of interest. The list is in no way complete as there are many other resources available.

https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/bevin-boys/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/bevin-boys-ii-searching-living-memories/ – retrieved 17 November 2019.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-22440248 – retrieved 17 November 2019.

The war-winning paper fuel tank

Richard Maddox

'PAPER' FUEL TANKS being tested by for leaks by Pearl Bradley (left) and Molly Frazer before being dispatched. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWMcatalogue reference D 23462. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20520154.

‘PAPER’ FUEL TANKS being tested by for leaks by Pearl Bradley (left) and Molly Frazer before being dispatched. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWMcatalogue reference D 23462. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20520154.

IN 1940 THE LUFTWAFFE TRIED TO ELIMINATE THE ROYAL AIR FORCE during what would later be called the ‘Battle of Britain’.

They failed but according to some analysts came close, with a change in strategy targeting cities instead of airfields giving the RAF a chance to regroup.

Four years later a similar situation existed but this time Allied forces were sweeping through Europe, and their German counterparts were preparing to defend their homeland while British and American aircraft pounded German cities literally night and day.

Although Allied bombers were able to strike deep into Germany they could only have limited protection from their fighter escort before they had to return and leave the bombers at the mercy of the Luftwaffe.

And once again the defending fighters could conserve fuel – by this time in short supply – by taking off at the last moment to intercept the attackers.

Like the RAF in 1940, sometimes the German fighters could attack the bomber force, land, re-arm and refuel before once more engaging the homeward-bound Allied aircraft.

As the tides of war started to turn in favour of the Allies, their bombers reached further into Reich territory.

Although they were armed for self-protection the aircraft were vulnerable to enemy fighters on sorties that could last for nine or more hours.

They needed additional protection.

They needed fighters that could fend off the Luftwaffe – not just at close quarters to the bombers but ideally before they could position for an attack.

A fighter aircraft has to be fast, maneuverable, well-armed and ideally small enough to be difficult to see.

And above all light.

All of which imposes limits on its design with interdependent factors – an increase in (say) armament could increase weight and possibly aerodynamic drag and affect speed and range.

And range – how far an aircraft could fly was critical at this stage.

IWM LONDON’S example of a paper drop tank showing the differences in construction for the forward, centre and rear sections. Note the damaged left (port) rear section.
Image Copyright: © R Maddox 2019.

Jettison-able external fuel tanks (or ‘drop tanks’) were a relatively quick solution to increase their range.

These fuel tanks were able to be detached in flight, enabling the fighter to fly with the bombers and engaged the enemy, having dropped the external tanks.

After engagement the fighters would return on the fuel held in their internal storage tanks.

In June 1943 an American Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighter could venture 230 miles from its base in England.

By August of that year the same aircraft fitted with external drop tanks could fly 375 miles – an increase of more than 60%.

By March 1944 a North American P-51 Mustang had a range of up to 600 miles. (1)

MISS ETHEL PRETT (left) and Miss Nellie Robery work to assemble components of the fuel tank at a factory 'somewhere in Britain'. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 23460. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205201540.

MISS ETHEL PRETT (left) and Miss Nellie Robery work to assemble components of the fuel tank at a factory ‘somewhere in Britain’. Image Copyright: © IWM. IWM catalogue reference D 23460. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205201540.

With metal in general – and aluminium in particular – at a premium and a valuable commodity that was salvaged by both sides from crashed aircraft that came down on their territories, an ingenious alternative was found by the RAF.

Paper. Laminated kraft paper.

This common product – used for cardboard packaging and things like brown envelopes – was very strong because of how it is produced. (2)

These tanks had a capacity of 108 US gallons (90 Imperial gallons) and although manufactured by British factories were used mainly by the ‘Little Friends’ – the fighter escorts of the 8th United States Army Air Force that accompanied the American bombers on daylight raids over Occupied Europe.

The tanks were cigar-shaped cylinders made in three sections – nose, tail and centre – all constructed with kraft paper reinforced resorcinol-formaldehyde glue, a waterproof adhesive that is resistant to ultraviolet rays. The paper itself has high tolerance to extremes of heat and cold – enabling them to be used in various theatres.

The middle section was made up of strips of the paper wound around a wooden cylinder in much the same way as a traditional toilet roll core is constructed. This tube then had plywood baffles fitted internally to support the structure and stop the fuel from surging from one end of the tank to the other. If this had occurred the trim and manoeuvrability of the aircraft would have been badly affected.

The tapered nose and tail ends were made up of specially pre-cut pieces, hand finished to get the smooth finish and curve required. Once the basic tank was finished fittings were added to enable the tanks to be filled, connected to the aircraft and the fuel to flow to the engine.

Then the tank was tested to six pounds per square inch to ensure its integrity. Finally they were finished with cellulose dope and then aluminium paint.

However it was found that fuel left within tanks for a period would slowly react with the glue and dissolve the tank and so the fueling and fitting to the aircraft was left as late as possible before take-off.

As previously noted the tanks were dropped before combat and usually landed in German or German-occupied territory and being paper denied recyclable metal to the Germans. But this also had an unexpected bonus.

The Germans had to produce leaflets in the areas where the tanks landed telling alarmed civilians that the tanks were empty fuel containers and not unexploded bombs. (3)

Sources

(1) Engineers of Victory – the problem solvers who turned the tide in the Second World War. Paul Kennedy (Allen Lane, 2013).

(2) https://www.jampaper.com/blog/what-is-kraft-paper/ – retrieved 30 November 2019.

(3) http://warbirdsnews.com/warbird-articles/necessity-mother-invention-paper-drop-tanks-wwii.html – retrieved 30 November 2019.