By Paul H. Vickers, Friends of the Aldershot Military Museum
As we prepare to enjoy the traditions of the Christmas season, with its feasting, decorations, family gatherings and the exchange of presents, it is worth reflecting that the people of Aldershot faced a very different prospect in December 1939, the first Christmas of the Second World War.
White’s of Aldershot, “the store of 1000 gifts”, still held its Toy Fair with Father Christmas in his Log Cabin, but these were not normal times. Uncertainty for the future, the absence of the resident Divisions who had been mobilised at the beginning of the war, growing restrictions and fear of air raids all mitigated against normal Yuletide festivity. The war was reflected in much of the advertising, such as that for Franklin’s of Victoria Road, who promoted their “Radio and records for Christmas - the Radio and Radiogram will be more than ever necessary this Christmas to counteract the depression of the black-out.”
In the mid-December 1939 came the first Canadian soldiers who would be based in Aldershot as they prepared for deployment to the war. These men were thousands of miles from home in a strange land, and they found themselves in badly heated, outdated barracks during one of the coldest winters for many years. One local resident, Mr Barton, who owned a garage in Camp Road, North Camp, saw groups of Canadian soldiers walking around and took pity on them. On Christmas Day morning he drove out with his daughter, Janet, until they saw a couple of young Canadians heading for a local pub. Pulling up beside them, Mr Barton wound down his window and called out “Would you two young men like to come and spend Christmas Day with us?” The surprised soldiers jumped in and were treated to a fine festive lunch. This act of kindness and hospitality started a friendship which lasted for many years after the war.
Wartime rationing and shortages affected everyone, but at Christmas time the desire to try and give the children some cheer was stronger than ever. Jack Cusack, serving with the Royal Canadian Engineers in Cove in 1941, remembered that the men were missing their own wives and families back in Canada, and so resolved to give local children a party to remember. They arranged for Army lorries to collect poor local children and bring them to camp, where they put on a party with a sumptuous tea, clowns, and a visit from Father Christmas who handed out bags of sweets and gifts. “I thought how pale and ill many of the kids looked”, remembered Jack, “and we got a great kick out of giving them this one big Christmas treat”.
More children’s parties followed each year, all of them including a visit by that most busy man, Father Christmas, who arrived in modern style in a Bren carrier for the party given in 1943 by the Canadian Armoured Corps Reinforcement Unit at Blackdown. In 1944 a splendid party was thrown by the Canadian General Reinforcement Unit for 500 of the poorer children of Aldershot and vicinity. Transport was provided to take them to the men’s mess room at Maida Barracks, where there was a short film show, followed by Sylvani’s magic tricks, a Punch and Judy show, a clown, community singing, and a tea of ice cream, chocolate biscuits, sandwiches and cakes, all rarities in the war and so a real treat. Finally Father Christmas arrived and each child received a toy, a bar of chocolate, sweets and an apple.
It was not just the Canadian units who put on parties for the children, the remaining British units did what they could to entertain. In 1942 the Army Catering Corps gave a party for 250 children, which started with Mickey Mouse and Popeye films in the ACC Training Centre Cinema, followed by community singing, then tea in their large dining room, with music played by the Centre’s dance band. After tea, carols were sung by the ATS choir, there was a Punch and Judy show, and finally the arrival of Father Christmas in a decorated trolley drawn by an escort of clowns. In 1943 the Royal Engineers entertained 250 children in the RE Theatre, who enjoyed a similar programme of tea, films, and the inevitable visit from Father Christmas.
Production of new toys had stopped early in the war, as all manufacturing had to be given over to the war effort. In order that Father Christmas had toys to give the children, the soldiers had to make them themselves, and they put in weeks of effort before the parties. The ACC and RE personnel made new toys from scrap and salvaged material, but the children were delighted to receive them. An extraordinary effort was made by the Canadian General Reinforcement Unit for their 1944 party. The event was for 500 children, but the unit made a remarkable 1,500 toys in their spare time, using whatever materials they could get hold of. The Aldershot News report described “brightly painted miniature chairs and tables, rocking chairs, dolls’ cots, a great variety of animals made from old battle dress uniforms, tanks and tommy guns to delight the boys, toy engines, and other toys too numerous to mention”. Having more toys than were needed for their party, that evening a group visited St Anthony’s Orphanage with 130 toys and entertained the children there. The next day they took the remainder to children in Queen Mary’s Home, Aldershot Hospital, the Day Nursery in the Grove, and the Isolation Hospital.
For adults, many found comfort in the traditional Christmas carols and church services. In 1941, what was described as “an exceptionally beautiful carol service” was held at the Royal Garrison Church on the afternoon of the Sunday before Christmas. The choir and band of the Royal Military School of Music combined with the church choir, and the carols and seasonal music were greatly appreciated by a large congregation. Later in the war, Colonel D F Spankie of Vancouver remembered a Christmas Eve service at the Royal Garrison Church in 1944, when “the only lighting [was] provided by candles and a full moon shining through the stained glass windows. All of this enhanced the feeling we had that the war would soon end and a new era would dawn.”
In that same year a similar theme was taken up by an editorial in the Aldershot News. The writer hoped “without probability of letting mere hope determine expectation, this will be the last Christmas of the war.” There was no “turkey, mince pie, orange, or what you will”, but “we can do without them and still celebrate what the festival means”. However, “more than the absence of these good things there is the absence of members of the family, which will be felt more keenly than ever at a time peculiarly associated with the family … Those who will never sit again at the Christmas table died in a struggle to make it possible for men and women to be free to live their own lives, and cannot this Christmas be made, by all of us, a dedication that the fruits of that struggle shall not be lost, and that we shall be free?”
Thankfully the war was now reaching its end, and by Christmas 1945 peace had returned. In Aldershot a 20 feet high Christmas tree was put up in Princes Gardens, and its lights were ceremonially switched on by Major-General Spry, the Canadian commander, on 18 December. Knowing this would be their last Christmas in Aldershot, the Canadians went all-out to make it memorable with the biggest set of children’s parties yet. On 19 December, 900 Farnborough children were entertained in the Marlborough Lines Theatre, Lille Gymnasium and Oudenarde Gymnasium; on 20 December No. 3 Repatriation Depot in Cove organised the “biggest, merriest and noisiest” party for 1,000 children from Cove, Yateley, Hawley and North Farnborough; and then on 21 December 1,800 children from Aldershot, Tongham and Badshot Lea were entertained at five big parties in the Camp, at Willems Barracks Cavalry School by No. 5 Repatriation Depot; at Badajos Barracks by No. 3 Wing 6 Repatriation Depot; in Maida Officers’ Mess by the Canadian Women’s Army Corps; at the Connaught Hospital by the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps; and at Albuhera Barracks by No. 1 Wing 6 Repatriation Depot.
As well as the young, the old people were not forgotten. Every year the Aldershot News had an appeal for its Old Folks Christmas Fund, as it had done since 1894. This provided 500 of the poorest pensioners, which included many old soldiers and widows of old soldiers, with a “bright Christmas card in which was fastened a brand new 10 shilling note”. It is a tribute to the generosity of the Aldershot people that, despite all the wartime hardships and shortages, every Christmas throughout the war money was donated to the appeal to provide this help for some of the town’s most vulnerable people. In 1945, they received an added bonus when the Canadian Military Headquarters gave over 100 parcels of woollen comforts, each parcel containing a muffler, cardigan, gloves, socks, and a woollen cap or helmet. They were distributed to pensioners by the local Rotary Club.
As a goodbye to Aldershot and Farnborough, on Saturday 22 December 1945 the Canadians staged a grand Farewell Christmas Parade. The first half of the parade was made up of performers from the “Rhythm Rodeo”, a Wild West show which the Canadian Army staged at Peper Harow Park near Goldalming, while the second half was a series of floats by the various Repatriation units, each on a different Christmas theme. The parade started from Blenheim Barracks parade ground, moved north to Farnborough and round North Camp, then marched the length of Queen’s Avenue and Hospital Hill into Aldershot town centre, finishing in Wellington Avenue. Townspeople turned out in huge numbers to enjoy the spectacle, cheering, clapping and shouting “Thank you, Canada” as the troops passed.
Reflecting on the first Christmas of peace after six years of war, the Aldershot News commented that “the tumult and shouting have died, but how difficult it is to realise even now that we are at peace”. Shortages and rationing continued, but “it would appear that, despite the possibility of only half the turkey which we are promised by the Minister of Food, it may not be such a bad Christmas after all.”
Article originally published in the Aldershot Garrison Herald, issue 017, December 2017/January 2018
Copyright © Paul H. Vickers. This article, including the accompanying pictures, may not be reproduced or republished, in whole or in part, either in print or electronically, including on any websites or social media sites, without the prior permission of the author.