The Second World War has always fascinated me, especially the home front – I’ve always been curious about what life was like for those away from the front lines, particularly outside of the major cities in largely rural places such as Wiltshire. In particular the story of immigrants (called ‘aliens’ at the time) living in these areas has always been a major interest of mine. It’s an often overlooked fact that there was a substantial European population living in Britain by the 1930s – including large and long-standing German, Austrian and Italian communities. There was also a considerable influx of people into the country after 1933 as those persecuted by the Nazis sought shelter here. Some of these people came to live in Wiltshire: by mid-1942, in addition to the wider immigrant population there were more than 200 people with official refugee status living in the county, about 75% of whom were German. When Britain went to war with Germany these people automatically became “enemy aliens”, and I wanted to find out more about what happened to them after this. I was surprised to discover that there was a suspected German Nazi party official living in Salisbury!
As the possibility of a major European conflict grew towards the end of the 1930s the government became increasingly concerned about the number of people living in Britain from potentially hostile nations, particularly Germany and Austria. These people fell under suspicion as potential spies and saboteurs and the government, particularly the Home Office and MI5, reacted by putting into place plans to arrest and imprison suspect enemy aliens should war break out, a process known as internment. Initially only those who the security services felt were a threat to national security were interned. In practice this was generally limited to those who were members of German political organisations, as there was serious concern that these people might help any German invasion. For example, pictured is the MI5 file card for Rudolf Habla, a Czechoslovakian living in Chippenham, indicating that he was a member of the Deutsch Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) and as such was wanted as a potential saboteur.
Whilst MI5 drew up the lists of potential suspects, it was left to local police forces to locate and arrest these people, and in Wiltshire the process was no different. We are lucky enough to have the records of Wiltshire Constabulary here at the History Centre and these contain many references to the arrest and internment of Wiltshire’s enemy aliens. These documents tell the story of the internment process during the war, not just for Wiltshire but for the country as a whole.
This year is one of commemorations, significant anniversaries and celebrations. Many people will have celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday but last month it was the monarch who was leading the birthday celebrations for another long-lived institution – the Royal Artillery which marked its 300th anniversary on 26 May with a royal visit, parade and displays at Larkhill.
A rather more sombre commemoration this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – a battle that dominates Britain’s collective memory of the First World War in the same way the Battle of Verdun occupies French history or Gallipoli tends to define Australian and New Zealand participation in the Great War. All these landmark events have come together as I work my way through a single archive – a treasure-trove of sketchbooks, diaries, letters and photographs that belonged to Hetman Jack Parham.
Jack Parham was born on 27 July, 1895 at Norrington near Alvediston in Wiltshire. He was raised on the family farm, educated at Sherborne School, and pursued a long and successful career in the Army. He retired a Major General and went to live in Suffolk – at Hintlesham near Ipswich – where he died in 1974. He lived the Royal Artillery’s Latin motto – Ubique – Everywhere.
I never knew the man. I was eight when he died and it would be another 22 years before I found myself living and working in Ipswich and sailing the River Orwell just as Jack, a keen sailor, had done.
But that is the beauty of archives – I have been able to get to know something of Jack’s remarkable story. This collection of drawings, photos and letters has taken me on an amazing journey through the early years of manned flight and Jack’s passion for aeroplanes; transported me to the battlefields of the First World War; and given me a brief insight into the thoughts of a senior military commander on D-Day 1944.
That journey began 13 months ago with a single sketchbook that had been identified by a researcher back in 2013/14 among a whole host of First World War resources. When I joined the History Centre in May 2015 I embarked on a number of centenary projects and was directed to the ‘Parham sketchbook’ from 1915-17 as a great resource. And what a resource.
Young people involved in the Dancing Back to 1914 project visited the History Centre to gain an understanding of Wiltshire 100 years ago. They were captivated by the detailed sketches that somehow closed the yawning chasm of the century separating them from the young men and women who experienced the Great War.
I was just as fascinated. Each sketch had been annotated at the time of drawing, while further notes were added (by Jack) at a later date to clarify a location or situation. I wanted to know more and periodically have been able to dip back into the Parham archive. Opening up each box has offered up something new and amazing.
Arctic convoy veterans living in Wiltshire and Swindon have allowed us to record and keep their accounts of life on board convoy ships in the Second World War.
Their accounts include dramatic moments, like receiving the order for PQ17 to scatter; reflective thoughts on the point of the convoys and memories of those who lost their lives; humorous anecdotes like the time when a man on watch realised the fin cutting through the water wasn’t a deadly torpedo ‘just a shark’.
Local 6th form students were given the opportunity to listen to some of these accounts and select from them those which they found of interest to create audio slide shows to publish on our website. One group were interested in the account of the battle to sink the German ship Scharnhorst, which became known as the battle of North Cape. A dramatic account of direct action against the enemy ship, to reduce the threat against the merchant ships on the convoy route. The second group chose a reflective piece about the 1944 convoy that repatriated 1,000s of Russian prisoners of war who were destined for the gulags.
The last group was fascinated by the accounts of life on board, the camaraderie, cockroach races, deck hockey games and other ways that the sailors passed the time when not on duty. The research helped one of the students understand more about the experiences of her relative who had served on the convoys.
I was editing some articles on Lydiard Tregoze for Wiltshire Community History(http://history.wiltshire.gov.uk/community/getcom.php?id=147) and after reading a good piece on the school, with interesting material from the log books, it struck me that it didn’t seem quite right. The school was Lydiard Park Junior and Infants but investigation showed that the logs books were for Bassett Down School; had there been two schools in this small parish? Wiltshire & Swindon Archives hold the log books for one, but nothing else, while the original deeds and two admission registers are held for Lydiard Park.
The Victoria County History for Wiltshire mentions Lydiard Park but has nothing to say about Bassett Down, where even the big house was demolished in 1958. Further research showed me that were indeed two schools in this parish for 100 years and this may have been brought about by the two main landowners founding and supporting their own schools. The original Lydiard Park School was attached to the Gate House on Lord Bolingbroke’s Lydiard Park estate and in 1860 he gave land for the building of a new school, a little further away, and continued to support it. In the south of the parish, on the edge of the grounds of Basset Down House a school was built in 1864; perhaps the Storey-Maskelyne family there felt, quite rightly, that their local children would not be able to walk the four miles each way to the Lydiard Park School.
The Battle of El Alamein has been seen one of the major turning points of the Second World War and although it has been viewed more critically in recent years, it cannot be denied that it was a major boost to British morale. Churchill declared "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat." The first battle took place in July 1942 with the decisive second battle being fought over a period of 13 days from 23rd October.
An article from The Times, November 6, 1942 reported
“Victory in Egypt No doubt remains that a major victory in North Africa, for which the country has waited so many months, has been achieved at last.”