Friday, 6 July 2012

An Untold German Occupation Tale

Last week I described how actor Jon Pertwee - best known as "Doctor Who" and "Worzel Gummidge" - had been to Jersey in 1937 as a fledgling actor as part of J. Baxter-Somerville's Repertory Players, taking place at the Springfield Theatre in Jersey. This position that was short-lived due to Jon playing practical jokes on the company's leading man which caused his dismissal.

This is described in "Moon Boots and Dinner Suits".

But there is a codicil. During the war, Jon had joined the Navy. He narrowly escaped death from the sinking of H.M.S. Hood, his ship, which was hit by the Bismarck; he had just been sent on an officer training course.  As he notes in his autobiography, "Of the 1415 men on board only three men survived, plus the sixteen of us that were taken off before that final action. It was a terrible, shocking thing, and I have never really got over it. To have had so many good friends die in the time it takes to snap your fingers."

During his time in the Navy, with his acting skills, he found his way into Naval Broadcasting, as a Lieutenant and Number Two in the section, where "our job was to produce and record programmes of every kind for the pleasure and edification of men and women in all three services. These programmes were recorded on acetate and distributed to ships and service radio stations all over the world. "

It was as a member of Naval Broadcasting that Jon came back to Jersey, and discovered what the Occupation had been like, and what had happened to the props for the 1937 show at Springfield.

It's an untold tale of the German Occupation, certainly one that I've never come across before, and it is also described in "Moon Boots and Dinner Suits":

Jersey After the War
An extract from Jon Pertwee's Moon Boots and Dinner Suits.

I had never expected to speak to J. B. Somerville again, nor he to me, but some years later, after the D-Day landings, I was sent by my then section of Naval Broadcasting to Jersey, to interview the locals on what their life had been like during the German occupation.

It was sad to see this normally sparkling isle so colourless, empty and depressed. The Jersey people were desperately hungry and short of everything. Having virtually no postage stamps, they cut two-Penny ones in half and used them as pennies, and so on up. I bought a number of these stamps and later made quite a killing.

One evening I took a stroll up to the Springfield to have a look at the theatre where I had started my career. The park itself was jammed with German vehicles. Mercedes 540K open-tourers, superb Horchs and BMWs. Big BMW motorcycles with and without sidecars and a plethora of Volkswagens of every description, but there was one remarkable thing that all these vehicles had in common. There wasn't a car or motorbike with a full set of tyres on it.

Unable to ship or fly any in during the last year of the war, the occupying German troops had resorted to binding strips of rubber cut from the walls of worn-out tyres around the rims, sometimes, in the case of the bikes and Volkswagens, even wiring on sacking. It was most undignifying for the Classic Royalty among them, to be so commonly shod. What a fortune lay there for a man of enterprise. Sad to say we will never see the like of such motor vehicles again.

Shedding a bitter tear, I walked into the large area under the auditorium of the theatre, to find that since the occupation, it had been used as a storage shed for the sacks of flour and grain employed in the making of bread for the occupying forces. No wonder the German troops looked hungry, for there was only one ten foot high wall of sacks left, and they'd obviously been eking them out. In a flash of memory I remembered that behind that wall was the scenery store, where all J. Baxter-Somerville's sets and props had been kept. So summoning an Army Sergeant I asked him to get some of the POWs to clear the wall of sacks from the door as I wanted to go in.

In twenty minutes the big scene door was clear and I entered the bay, the first man to do so in several years. It was Aladdin's cave. The Store was exactly the same as when the company had left it in 1939, full to the brim with the 'old oak set' and all the other repertory theatre scenery clichés. There were skips filled with props and roll-cloths depicting hideously garish gardens and landscapes and many hundred-weight of timber for the construction of further horrors.

During the occupation, for want of fuel, the Germans had burned every sliver of wood that they could lay their hands on, including hundreds of beautiful mature trees. If they had known what was hidden away behind their grain sacks they would have burned the lot. So in order to protect my long-suffering old boss's property, I had the 'Soldaten' build up the grainsack wall again.

When I got back to England some three weeks later, I contacted J. B. Somerville and gave him the good news.
'Is that Mr Somerville?'

'It is.'

'This is your erstwhile enfant terrible, Jon Pertwee here.'

'Oh yes!' His voice took on a colder tone. 'And what can I do for you?'

'Its more a question of what I can do for you. Would you believe that I could metaphorically put hundreds of pounds back in your pocket, with just one simple sentence?'

'No, but tell me just the same.'

I told him and he was beside himself

'What can I do to repay the bringer of such glad tidings?' he asked.

'Just give me another chance in one of your Rep Companies after the war, sir. I've grown up at last and wouldn't let you down again, I promise,' I replied.

'Then a position awaits you, Pertwee, you have my word on it,' said J.B.

But the way things went for me professionally, after the war, I was unable to take him up on this offer, and sad to say, we never met again.

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