When the Nazi air attacks began in earnest, every aspect of life in Britain became channeled into the war effort. Theirs was a small island nation with limited resources facing a military/industrial colossus with the entire provender of conquered Europe at its disposal. Desperate measures would be called for in order to survive. Brits were encouraged to grow their own food, re-use everything and build bomb shelters in their backyards. The government sponsored a war bond drive, collected scrap metal for use in fabricating weapons and carefully rationed consumer goods. The talents of the advertising industry turned to creating posters reminding people that loose lips sink ships and even the space on cigarette packages that normally advertised tea, tinned cakes and beer was used to reinforce the information everyday Brits needed to survive.
I remember one thing about my father that always struck me: his uncanny ability to identify aircraft. We would be sitting on the couch watching a TV show set during the war and he would immediately identify any plane that appeared onscreen: Corsair, Mustang P-4, Spitfire. These were fairly common allied planes known to most people, but dad could name them at the briefest glance. This was impressive enough, but it was the German aircraft he knew best: the Heinkel, the Junker-88, the Stuka, the Messerschmitt 109. He could identify these by silhouette, tell you each one’s effective operational range, crew complement, armament and the kind of engine it used. I assumed he knew these things because he liked aircraft and had studied them for fun as a boy. But I later realized that, as a Blitz kid, my father’s motives for learning about German planes had nothing to do with enjoyment. It was a matter of survival.
My Grandpa Joe, who worked in the shipyards, smoked. A lot of men did back then, but the war took a toll on the tobacco supply so Grandpa took to storing tobacco and old butts in the pocket of the coat he would wear to work each day then hang on a coat tree by the door upon his return home. My father confessed to me that he would occasionally raid that pocket for half-smoked cigarettes and scraps of tobacco that he and his friends could roll and share. Like a lot of Blitz kids, dad started smoking early.
The cigarettes my grandfather could buy when they were available included cards, similar to modern-day baseball and hockey cards. In pre-war days, these contained images of sailing ships, sports personalities or historical figures. But with the war, cards were repurposed to convey reminders and tips about the skills necessary to survive bombardments and gas attacks. Cigarette cards showed the average Brit how to turn his living room into a bomb shelter, help a child put on a gas-mask or extinguish an incendiary bomb with a garden hose. These cards were intended to convey as much information as could possibly be fitted into a tiny space. They also contained images of planes.
Airplane cards often featured an attractive illustration of the airship in question on one side and a list of specs on the reverse: engine make, top speed, crew complement, ordnance – the works. Men who smoked would sometimes keep these cards. Grandpa Joe gave his to my dad. Too bad we lost track of them, because they’re worth a fortune today on e-Bay.
I imagine my father collecting and studying these cards, trading them with friends, one-upping each other on how well they knew their facts. In such times, a boy’s natural fascination with machinery and war would have been tempered with the knowledge that some of those beautiful machines he admired were being sent to kill him. Some ‘spotter cards’ (for so were cigarette cards of airplanes called) featured silhouette charts, enabling an observer to tell whether the plane above was a fighter or a bomber. Deciding what to do with such knowledge meant the difference between life and death in an air raid. Such was the brutal calculus of war and the basis of my father’s impressive knowledge of Nazi airplanes.
Unfortunately, my father’s career as a big-time tobacco thief had one built-in problem: getting a light. Grandpa used a lighter, which my dad could not very well pinch. “And your grandmother watched every wooden match in the place,” he complained to me once.
“So how did you get a light?”
Dad smirked. “Gas street-lamps. We’d roll a smoke and then send one of the kids up to light it from the gas jet.”
I had to laugh. Life during war-time. Kids always find a way.