As we reach December 2023 I thought this month we would take a look back 80 years to Christmas 1943. For Britain it was the fifth Christmas of the war and although wartime shortages and rationing made a major impact on how the birth of Christ was celebrated, people filled with a hope that this might be the last wartime Christmas were certainly determined to celebrate.
By Christmas 1943 there were now 4½ million men and 450,000 women serving in Britain’s armed forces. During the year more than 25,000 men had fallen into enemy hands but 1943 had seen the end of the North African Campaign, the successful capture of Sicily in just 38 days and the invasion of Italy that had led to the surrender of the Italian government, although the Germans had re-installed Mussolini in a puppet regime as they continued to resist the advancing Allied armies. On the 7th December Monte Cassino had been captured.
There were shortages of paper and decorations. People reused paper saved from the previous year and made home-made decorations from whatever they could find. Turkeys were in very short supply and many city folk struggled to source even a chicken. Rabbit was the meat many consumed for their Christmas dinner. Many Cornish folk invited American troops into their homes to celebrate Christmas with them and the guests often turned up with armfuls of provisions that made the locals extremely grateful.
People still flocked to watch sport on either Christmas Day or Boxing Day. In Cornwall local teams often played against a forces side or a team from the Home Guard. Newspapers carried reports of League Cup football matches where 13,186 watched Bradford beat Leeds 2-1 or 20,000 saw Liverpool beat Wrexham 4-0. Man City won away at Bury 4-0 while Man United beat Halifax 6-2 in an eight goal thriller. In the League South Arsenal were held to a 1-1 draw by Millwall, Fulham lost to Spurs 0-2, QPR beat Brentford 3-2 while West Ham hammered Chelsea 3-0. London also saw a range of Greyhound racing meets while in Rugby Union Cheltenham beat an RAF XV 29-3.
The newspapers also told of the two royal princesses putting on a pantomime over three days in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. Elizabeth and Margaret Rose starred in Aladdin where the cast included royal staff and soldiers on royal protection duties. One of the highlights for the audience was the moment Princess Margaret urged her father HM King George VI to sing up during one of the musical numbers that required audience participation.
A whistlestop tour of festivities in Cornwall shows the British Legion providing a party for 400 children in the Public Rooms which included a Punch and Judy show, a fancy dress parade and a talent contest. As the children left they were given a monetary gift by Santa Claus. In the evening the venue hosted a dance for the adults featuring the DCLI Dance Band The Red Feathers.
In Falmouth influenza devastated festivities. The Mayor Councillor Howard was confined to bed for a fortnight and unable to make his usual tour of hospital, homes and institutions or to provide a New Year’s message for the local paper. The Falmouth Amateur Operatic Society were due to host a grand New Year’s Eve Ball in the Princess Pavilions but that too fell to influenza. The Rascals Dance Band stepped in and provided music for a dance at the venue from 8pm until midnight.
In Foxhole the members of the Methodist Church presented the nativity play The Stained Glass Window. It ran for two nights in the church and featured many of the scholars and teachers of the Sunday School.
In Gunnislake the Gospel Hall held a Bright and Brief Carol Service that was very well attended. The speaker was Rev B.A. Evans. 130 children from the Junior Council School were treated to a party by the American troops where they were entertained by a well-known American Dance Band under the leadership of Warrant Officer Larry Smigel, given tea that included American cookies and then each child was given a present and a bag of candy by an American Santa Claus.
Illness also hit celebrations in Hayle where seven cases of diphtheria in four separate families had been notified. All the cases were removed to the County Isolation Hospital in the old workhouse in Truro that I featured in a previous blog. However it didn’t stop 200 children being entertained by US troops to a party in the Drill Hall where the youngsters enjoyed a concert and tea and were given a pack of candy by the Americans.
In Kilkhampton an RAF Band provided the music for a dance in the Grenville Room which raised money for the Red Cross Prisoners of War Fund. The event was organised by Miss Baker. She also organised a social for the village Youth Club which raised £1 12s for the POW Fund. A Junior School Christmas Concert saw a range of carols and pieces performed by the children. A collection was taken for the POW Fund which allowed Miss Baker to send £5 10s to the Red Cross. One amazing woman gave a village a great Christmas and provided funds for parcels that would send food and helpful supplies to those in captivity.
In Lanner the local football team played a Christmas Day football match that saw them beat Blackwater 5-1 with R Oates scoring four of the goals – his seventh hat-trick of the season! G Perryms got the other Lanner goal.
There was sadness in Launceston on the Sunday before Christmas when an American Army lorry hit pedestrians walking from Penygilliam to Trebursye near the entrance to Tresmerrow Farm. Mrs Mary Emma Pengelley, aged 30, died from internal injuries an hour after being admitted to Launceston Hospital. She had been walking along the road with her husband and five year old son.
In Lostwithiel 300 children were treated to a showing of the film Elephant Boy courtesy of the Mayor S.C. Brown who presented each child as they left with a greeting card with a savings stamp attached. The Home Guard celebrated its third birthday with a party where the cadets gave a demonstration of handbell ringing.
In Newquay the Choral and Orchestral Society gave a performance of Handel’s Messiah conducted by Mr Walter Horler and featuring soprano soloist Miss Moira Jewell who had only stepped into the role at the last moment due to illness. Tenor Flight Lieutenant Wilkinson was also singled out for praise in the local press.
The US Army were present in numbers at Par Methodist Church for the carol service on the Sunday before Christmas where their Chaplain Rev J Copeland and organist Warrant Officer Bowler led the evening service. They again led the service on Boxing Day and the first service in the New Year. WO Bowler was forced to give an encore when he played the piano at a New Year’s Eve concert organised by the St Mary’s Methodist Young People’s Guild.
In Penzance 1200 primary school aged children were treated to parties by the Americans. There was also a sold-out RAF dance at the Winter Gardens.
In St Ives there was a Commando Dance on New Year’s Day with music provided by the Les Hichens’ Dance Band. Other events saw Jimmy Rickard’s Augmented Band provide the music for a dance of the ATC and GTC on December 23rd in the town Guildhall, and Johnny Thornton’s Swingette Dance Band were at the same venue on Christmas Eve where admission was 2/6 for civilians and 1/- for members of the Forces.
On 22nd December a soldier of the Pioneer Corps was killed at Newham Station in Truro when a section of a water tank fell off a reversing lorry and hit him fracturing his skull. James William Stockton of Durham was rushed to the Royal Cornwall Infirmary but found to be dead on arrival. At an inquest on Christmas Eve coroner Mr L. J. Carlyon returned a verdict of accidental death.
Black American troops treated the senior scholars of local and evacuated schools to a cinema show in the Trinity Methodist Schoolroom in Wadebridge. On leaving the youngsters were given “drinks of pop and packets of candy”. The same troops also entertained the members of the town’s various Methodist Churches to a social evening with games, music and refreshments. Both events were well received by the locals. Twenty two Wadebridge children whose parents and brothers were serving overseas were guests of the American troops for a meal in their mess on Boxing Day with games and presents and sweets from the Christmas tree. At a Christmas concert at Egloshayle Road Methodist Church a sextette of black troops delighted the audience with their rendition of African-American spirituals.
To find out more about wartime Christmas celebrations in Cornwall why not check out my series of YouTube videos A Wartime Christmas in Cornwall. They will take you from 1939 to 1942 in ever increasing detail. I hope to get the 1943 one finished over the festive period this year. The link to the playlist is: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLCJ_f6SQ0RPYUR1jIk2BpkJ8Yt9Ym2IU1&si=9mw_Ew2uz_-WMCMp
If you would like a feelgood Christmas story then try my short eBook ‘Vacuees Have Christmas Too which tells the story of three arrivals in a Cornish harbour village just before Christmas 1940 and at £3.49 it won’t break the bank! As long as your device has an eReader you don’t need to have a Kindle. You can always download a free eReader when you get to the Amazon download page. Details of the book can be found at https://www.philhadleypublications.com/vacuees-have-christmas-too
Finally may I wish you and yours a very Happy Christmas, and in a world once again torn apart by war, terror and suffering from Ukraine to the Middle East to Sudan and numerous other places, perhaps it’s time we again visited the One who was born Prince of Peace. Happy Christmas.