“I did 50 years as a black cab driver,” says 93-year-old Richard Forrester, in front of a line of cabbies parked up. “They don’t seem to have changed much. They dress different. They’re younger. They still have a better outlook on life than most people.”
We’re not standing by a West End taxi rank or at an anti-Uber go slow protest. We’re in the loading area for a ferry at Portsmouth. Forrester, an ex-light infantryman with the King’s Royal Rifles Corps who took part in the push from Normandy to Belgium in summer 1944, is rather magnificently dressed in a beret and a bottle green blazer festooned with medals. The cabbies are volunteers for a charity taking 38 servicemen and women, mainly Londoners, for a week of commemoration events in Normandy.
The Taxi Charity for Military Veterans was set up by London taxi drivers in 1948 to take disabled World War II veterans on a trip to the seaside. They’ve repeated this excursion every year since then, and more recently extended their efforts to co-ordinating fundraising collections by veterans at railway stations and organising visits to important wartime sites, including Normandy, the Netherlands and Berlin, to commemorate the airlift. Drivers freely volunteer their time and their vehicles. Chairman Ian Parsons notes the wonderful rapport between the drivers and the veterans and the way the charity has created a social club for “the Greatest Generation”.
The Taxi Charity is one of a number specific to the taxi trade – others take sick children on trips to Euro Disney. Like so many small charities, it survives through the passion of its members: the trips are hugely costly undertakings and, although they have a fundraiser to tap into big business, most of the money comes from people in the taxi trade emptying their pockets for events like golfing days. Dave Hemstead, an ex-Royal Green Jacket from World’s End, Chelsea, who has been a driver for 16 years, says that with the cost of running a black cab “we all have to make that decision on the money that we lose coming on these trips. But we do it because we like doing it”. With younger cabbies getting involved, like 38-year-old Sebastian Philp, who was inspired by his grandfather’s service at Monte Cassino, there are now, poignantly, more drivers than veterans.
Those taken to France this week range from paratroopers to engineers, signalmen to sailors. They include Sergeant Jeff Haward, an ex-Territorial who fought the whole duration of the war as a machine gunner in the “Die Hard” Middlesex Regiment, and in 1945 was awarded the Military Medal by Field Marshal Montgomery personally. Their tales of bravery in the field and loss of comrades are heart-rending, their attitudes to war varied, and their observations punchy and subversive (96-year-old Chelsea Pensioner Roy Cadman’s parting shot is to exclaim: “Don’t talk to me about Brexit! I want to be sick every time I hear it. They can’t make up their stupid, thick bloody minds what’s happening.” Then, to clarify, he said he had voted to stay in and hopes we will get another vote).
Their incidental experiences are as strange and fascinating as those about the thick of the action. Bill Gladden of the 6th Airborne Army Recce Regiment, having survived a hair-raising descent into France when his glider towrope fell, had his ankle blown off days later leaving only his Achilles tendon. His foot was saved by an experimental bone graft, involving temporarily sewing and plastering his legs together, by pioneering surgeon Sir Archibald Macindoe and his team. Bill wishes he could have stayed with his comrades: “I envy them when I meet people now, I missed all that.” Dagenham resident and Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) veteran Ruby McCrudden lost her father, who worked for the Gas Light And Coke Company, in London for four days. He reappeared surreally in the garden just as the family was scanning for a German parachutist who had come down in the street.
As we remember the veterans, it seems timely to also recall the experiences of London and Londoners in 1944: an enthralling parallel story to the military campaign. For weeks, a city weary from five years of rationing and shortages was on tenterhooks for the cross-Channel invasion. Imperial War Museum senior curator Ian Kikuchi explains how the huge military build-up across the country disrupted passenger rail services, meaning fewer opportunities to visit relatives at Easter, while exercises on the coast limited Easter and Bank Holiday trips to the seaside. Londoners were swept up in elaborate decoy operations, such as the WAAF unit taken to Norfolk dressed in male uniforms and ordered to guard broken down buses with broom handles, to give the impression of the massing of troops.
A week after news of D-Day broke, raising hopes that the war might end the same year, the first of 9,500 V1 flying bombs were launched against London and the South East. The way these new weapons ominously cut their engines before impact, the fact that they could arrive day or night, and the widespread damage they could cause (a 600 yard radius blast circle) had a devastating effect on morale. It’s been estimated that two million people evacuated the capital at this point: as many children and even more adult Londoners than during the Blitz. Dulwich-based World War II researcher Stephen Henden describes a capital that had become very quiet, the air thick with soot and dust, streets covered in broken glass and leaves ripped off trees by the force of the bombs. There was a wave of people taking their pets to the vet to be euthanised.
Just as the RAF got better at intercepting V1s and Londoners were becoming accustomed to them, the V2 attacks started. Considered to be a strategic failure for the Germans, the psychological impact of these early ballistic missiles that gave no warning of approach was arguably even worse than that of the V1s, although some took a philosophical attitude that there was no point getting worried about them. A young mother living close to Bill Gladden’s family in Woolwich was out with her baby when a V2 landed. No trace of them was ever found.
The deadliest strike, at Woolworths in New Cross in November 1944, killed 168; the last but one, in March 1945, hit an East End mansion block full of Jewish families. The V2s struck over an autumn and cold winter, often leaving survivors vulnerable in homes without windows and roofs. Some areas were repeatedly struck by V1s and V2s, with the same houses having their windows blown out again and again.
Denis Browne of civic organisation Brentford Community Council, then a trainee architect cycling round the city and volunteering for two church charities, felt that by this stage people in the East End had “really had enough”. He recalls the church of St George’s in the East in Stepney reduced to operating in a small room under one tower after the bombing of both the church building and the Nissen hut that replaced it, and the vicar’s family living in their cellar.
The south-east of London was disproportionately hit by V1 bombs, and the north-east by V2s – partly because of where the launch sites were, in the Pas de Calais and the Hook of Holland respectively, meaning these were the areas struck when the weapons fell short. The War Cabinet seems to have agreed that an operation to feed back false information about landing sites to the Germans to divert attacks from the centre of London would be wrong in principle, but a final decision was not minuted. Whatever the truth of the situation, there was great resentment and seething controversy about the heavier toll falling on poorer areas that had already suffered badly in the Blitz.
The D-Day anniversary celebrations prompt a sense of urgency around hearing veterans’ stories, as we feel the era slipping away. There could be a similar drive around capturing the testimony of Londoners of all professions and walks of life from the period. There’s more we could do to signpost London wartime geography, such as the V2 blast site by the Caffè Nero on Tottenham Court Road, and inform the curious about what was lost and how the city changed during the war. There’s so much to learn from the domestic history of the final year of the war, both in terms of how to get through an all-absorbing crisis, and what should be avoided. Bearing in mind the Taxi Charity’s experience, we can be thinking how we might resource all this work, and who might be able to make it happen.
Photos: Veterans at wreath laying ceremony to the fallen on board ferry to Caen (top); Frank Prendergast of the Parachute Regiment and dancing partner (middle); Bill Gladden (bottom). All courtesy the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans.