Monday, 15 June 2015

Postcard from the South of France 1939

Saint-Raphael in the South of France 1939.
I was about to use this old postcard to write a note to a friend when I took a closer look and got drawn into the hidden story it has to tell.

I communicate with friends by sending them letters and postcards. Any old postcards, new or old. 

Sometimes I pick up an old postcard that has never been written on and am the first to give it a message to carry, but sometimes someone has already done that long ago and so I add my own between the lines, maybe in a different coloured ink, my message running between the original one written perhaps seventy or eighty or a hundred years ago. 

This palimpsest quality of postcards fascinates me, not just the written messages but the many other messages carried by a postcard, the stamp for example, and the postmark, and the picture overleaf.

And so the story of this postcard from Saint-Raphael in the South of France, written and postmarked on the same day, Tuesday 4 July 1939. 

First there is the picture, the two girls strolling along looking casual and quite modern except that today their waistlines would be low, not high. 

'Weather lovely.'
The message on the back reads, ‘On the whole, a bas la WTA and vive la Prospect so far as I can say at present. Am in a lovely pension annexe run by 2 English ladies 15 mins from the main centre (Hotel Diana) where they are very dissatisfied and are longing to get a change. Pasty rather starchy, don’t drink, smoke, etc. Vive la France. GRW (Weather lovely)’. 

WTA probably means the Workers’ Travel Association which was founded in 1921 by British trade unions and the Cooperative Movement to offer organised and affordable overseas holidays to working class people. A chief mover behind the WTA was Arthur Creech Jones, trade unionist, socialist and pacifist, who organised protest meetings when conscription was introduced in 1916 and spent the rest of the war in jail as a conscientious objector.
Workers' Travel Association
brochure for 1939.

Creech Jones travelled a great deal in the 1930s, writing up his trips in his Travel Log column of the WTA journal.  His trips took him to Germany which acquainted him first hand with the Nazis and their persecution of the Jews; after the Munich Agreement in 1938 Creech Jones directed the rescue of hundreds of Jews from Czechoslovakia.

Meanwhile in 1935 Creech Jones was elected to Parliament; in 1940 when Ernest Bevin became minister of labour in Churchill’s wartime government he appointed Arthur Creech Jones his parliamentary private secretary.  In Clement Atlee’s postwar Labour government Creech Jones became secretary of state for the colonies and helped begin the process of decolonisation in Africa, Asia and the West Indies.  But that is taking us well beyond 1939 and this postcard from the South of France.

So what about ‘a bas la WTA and vive la Prospect’?  The author of the postcard has taken to the delights of Mediterranean France and he disapproves of the WTA’s choice of pension; I assume it is the pension run by the two English ladies that he finds rather starchy and he much prefers the Prospect which I suppose to be a cafĂ© where he can smoke and drink and watch the pretty girls walk by.  

'!!! H- H- !'
He dates his postcard only ‘Mardi’. But the postmark says more, 4 July 1939, which was a Tuesday. Less than two months later, on 1 September, Germany invaded Poland; on 3 September France and Britain declared war on Germany. This is the last summer, the last summer for many people and many ways and many things.

Then turning the postcard sideways I noticed those strange strokes, three exclamation marks and two dashes. Printed on the postcard are the words ‘ImprimĂ© en Allemagne’, Made in Germany. And GRW, who has sent the postcard, has added his own coded remark ‘!!! H – H—!’ – which after a moment I realised was an ironic Heil Hitler.

So GRW knows.  He knows this is the last summer.  In fact GRW knows more than most as the address on the postcard reveals. ‘A C Cossor Ltd, Highbury Grove, London N5’ – I know Highbury Grove with its launderettes and betting shops, its newsagents, off licences, Indian restaurants, Italian delicatessen and nail care centre.  A C Cossor would be something like that, I thought. 

Cossor's 1939 catalogue.

But A C Cossor turns out to be something different.  Founded in Clerkenwell in 1859 to manufacture scientific glassware, by 1902 it was making cathode ray tubes and during the First World War was a major supplier of valves to the British military.  In 1936 it was selling television sets. 

When the Battle of Britain began less than a year after GRW sent his postcard from Saint-Raphael to his friend in the publicity section of A C Cossor, when German bombers and fighter planes were attempting to knock Britain out of the war, Britain’s defence was in the hands of those men in their Spitfires whom Churchill called the Few, and also it was in the hands of A C Cossor’s radar system.
Radar transmitting towers in the background and receiving towers in the foreground.
On 20 June 1939, two weeks before that postcard was sent from the South of France to Cossor’s in Highbury Grove, Churchill was given a demonstration of their radar system.

In the face of the mounting German threat Cossor had begun developing the world's first radar air defence system, known as the Chain Home network, for which it would produce hundreds of ground-based receiving stations and eventually sea-based and airbourne radar systems too.   

Plotting enemy aircraft movements
on a cathode ray tube.

'Today has been one of the most exciting days of my life', Churchill said, 'for you have shown me the weapon with which we will defeat the Nazis'. 

I wish I knew something about GRW who sent the postcard and about E Blackburn who received it, about what happened to them in the immediate years to come.  And also what happened to those two girls walking so casually along the promenade.

The Few who won the Battle of Britain in the air.
But otherwise I have passed on to you what I have been told by the postcard sent from Saint-Raphael on Tuesday 4 July 1939.  I have not yet scribbled my own lines on it and sent it to a friend.

The Few who operated the radar defence system and won the Battle of Britain on the ground. 
For more on this see here.