Tuesday, 5 April 2011

I am the Boiler Man

Last week's Blog closed on a note of classic British 'stiff upper lip' and an absolute determination to remain calm in the face of adversity, so perhaps now is a good time to take this facet of the British personality a step further and examine how we managed to keep our sense of humour during the dark days of the Blitz and wartime in general.

Whilst everyone surely agrees that war is a grim experience for everyone, it is also a fact that wartime conditions can bring out the absolute best in people as well as the absolute worst. Among the better aspects of human nature is a sense of humour and even during the darkest days of the Second World War, there are examples of humour - sometimes from a senior officer in the face of adversity to demonstrate to his men that things aren't actually that bad, sometimes what we now call 'gallows humour' and more often than not, simply because the person concerned was a naturally cheerful person and war wasn't going to change anything.

Some of the best examples of the former seem to come from the Royal and Merchant Navies, such as this splendid example from Admiral Sir James Somerville (pictured), newly appointed in command of the Eastern Fleet in 1942 and flying his flag in HMS Warspite. His fleet was largely an ageing and obsolescent one and they were steaming towards very possible destruction at the hands of the Japanese but he still found time to send the following memo to his Executive Officer, Commander Sir Charles Madden, who was a Baronet, which read:

'Dear Charles, I am well aware that as a Baronet you are indifferent to the suffering of mere Admirals, but would you mind having my lavatory unblocked?'

Somerville knew that this message would do the rounds of the messdecks and whilst it made him the butt of his own joke, it demonstrated to the men of his fleet that if he could be unconcerned about the Japanese threat to them, then why should they worry?

Strangely, some of the best examples of gallows humour came from the German side, especially towards the end of the war, when defeat was inevitable. Wehrmacht soldiers in the Western Front were becoming used to the overwhelming Allied air supremacy, with all the discomfort that this brought and soon the saying was doing the rounds:

'If planes show up painted in camouflage markings, then its the RAF. If they show up painted silver, then its the Americans. And if they don't show up at all, then its the Luftwaffe!'

A great example of the third type of humour, that of the genuinely cheerful and cheeky person comes from Angela Raby's excellent book about the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service, 'The Forgotten Service' and concerns Eileen Lamb, a shift leader at Station 39 in Weymouth Mews:

'Eileen was a glamourous society girl with her own flat. Her father was in the Royal Navy and her mother was on the Queen's Working Party at the Palace. While going on leave, Eileen was travelling in a railway carriage alongside an airman who asked to use her lighter. As she lit his cigarette, she accidentally set fire to his magnificent handlebar moustache. She apologised profusely and he was gracious enough to reply that everything was "O.K." However, she made the mistake of lending him her mirror. On seeing with horror the remains of his moustache, he rounded on her: "That's all your fault," to which Eileen replied, "Not so. You're the one who should know about wind direction."'

Winston Churchill, despite the enormous pressures of leading the country in wartime, with all of the trials and tribulations never lost his sense of humour, which could surface at the most unexpected times. After a particularly fraught conference with General De Gaulle, who was never the easiest of allies to get along with, Churchill suddenly turned to General Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and said to him "How can one do business with a man who looks like a female llama who has just been surprised in the bath?" Brooke, who was well used to the darker side of Churchill's moods struggled to control his laughter.

If some of the humour seems a little strained by today's standards, we shouldn't forget that the British public were trying to put a brave face on very trying times but the Londoner would always try and have the last word, such as these hecklers at Speakers' Corner, where the speakers in question must have known they were on to a loser from the start:

'What are we fighting for?' cried a speaker.
'Spam!' replied someone in the crowd.

'Who are the two greatest men in the World?' asked another orator.
'Flanagan and Allen' said the voice in the crowd.

Some of the very best humour was unintentional and perhaps we should close with this farcical situation being reported in Westminster during the height of the Blitz.

'Mr Kimmett, Chief Warden's Liaison Officer was conducting a reconnaissance at the Art Metal Company during the Hugh Street incident and asked a man at the door if there was anybody in the building when the bomb fell. The man replied "Only the Boiler Man." Mr Kimmett found out from him where the Boiler Room was and set off to make a search. The building was flooded at the time and though he searched diligently, waist deep in water, he could find no sign of a floating corpse. So he returned to the man at the door and enquired as to the whereabouts of the Boiler Man. The reply he received was "I am the Boiler Man!"'

The reply of Mr Kimmett, or indeed what he thought of the Boiler Man in question probably couldn't be printed here!

Published Sources:

Backs to the Wall - Leonard Mosley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1971
The Fighting Admirals - Martin Stephen, Leo Cooper 1991
The Forgotten Service - Angela Raby, After The Battle 1999

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991

Make a Signal - Capt Jack Broome DSC, RN, Putnam 1955

War Diaries 1939-45 - Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, editors Alex Danchev & Daniel Todman, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2001

Unpublished Sources:

City of Westminster Archives

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