Tuesday, 5 July 2022

Yanks in Clevedon: 1943-44

 In December 1943 an U.S Army jeep appeared on the Six Ways interchange in Clevedon. The occupant, Major Barney Oldfield, and his driver, Corporal Max Shepherd, were scouting for 'a village site in the West Country' which would take about 700 men. 

Right in front of the GPO exchange on Six Ways stood a man in a top hat and tails wearing a morning coat - rather formal for a vacation type seaside town thought Oldfield who nevertheless stopped his vehicle and approached the man in question.

"I'm from a an American town about the same size as Clevedon, called Tecumseh, so landlocked you have to go half way across the united States to smell salt water."

The Clevedonian listened, stiff as a board before asking "what sort of unit are you bringing to OUR town?".

In recounting this meeting in the Tecumseh Chieftain newspaper in the early 1990s, Colonel Oldfield remembered the apprehension in his tone. 

"I told him they were media people, that they would form the press facilities and support for the American and Canadian field armies when Europe is invaded - no convoys of lorries, Just the odd two and half ton truck".


Major Barney Oldfield - Public Affairs Alumni Association 

The unit which arrived in Clevedon following Oldfield's recce, was pretty unique. The Publicity and Psychological  Warfare Battalion consisted of several hundred journalists, photographers, PR men, linguists, radio operators and drivers. The unit had been set up by Jack M.Redding a newspaper man from Chicago, who had obtained a commission in the Air Corps. Oldfield remembers his boss as 'having a ferocious scowl, which he wore in various styles for various occasions'. 

Oldfield's conversation with the smartly dressed man on Six Ways brought the required result. 

"He faced down each of the streets, punched his clenched fists in the air and lo, the streets were full of ladies - some with babies in prams, a-wheeling kids or scooters. He had a village map of housing available showing the number of rooms in each building suitable for offices and lodgings."

" We were taken down to the Pier and Ma Cole's pub (Note: this was the bar of the Pier Hotel). There were nearly 200 locals down there with great smiles and I was introduced as 'a fine American chap'.  I told them I was bringing a lot of new neighbours from all over America - one of them a little odd. Roy Wilder from North Carolina who wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune. You'll have to put up with a lot of strange smells when he gets care packages from his homefolks containing things called chitlins (Note: a delicacy made from the intestines of domestic animals). There was another, a fellow named Lt James W Campbell who was a Tennessee bureau chief for the United Press. Newspaper people tended then, to write with a cigarette butt lip-clenched, the smoke coming up in to their eyes. I told how he'd licked that by using a 14 inch cigarette holder which took the acrid smoke well beyond his nostrils".

The unit was in town for almost six months, and by all accounts made quite an impression. Oldfield felt that as a result of the incursion, Clevedon 'became a highly sophisticated - even intellectual - centre'! When the press camps left to join their First and Third Armies on the eve of D-Day Clevedon apparently became 'a ghost town'.

Local resident Val Seeley remembers the American soldiers. "Some of them were billeted in the Walton Park Hotel and they used to walk past our house on Wellington Terrace. We quickly learnt to say 'got any gum, chum?' and they always had sweets for us kids. Lovely guys". 

So where did this eclectic mix of characters go when the war moved onto the European continent? 

Major Barney Oldfield - Nebraska State Historical Society

Major Oldfield had understood that airborne troops would be at the forefront of the fighting and he therefore arranged for a number of the press corps to be trained for parachute jumps. Colonel James M.Gavin was sceptical of the need for imbedded journalists but nevertheless acquiesced to the training that Major Oldfield was suggesting.

The men of The Publicity and Psychological Warfare Battalion were to serve their cause with distinction throughout the remaining period of the European war. With the invading troops on D-Day, through to the liberation of Paris, onwards into Holland (Oldfield with the Ninth Army) and then reaching Berlin after hostilities had ended - prompting some interesting interactions with the Red Army.

Colonel Barney Oldfield (since promoted) recounted his exploits in his book 'Never A Shot in Anger' published by Duell, Sloan and Pearce in 1951. He dedicated his book to 'all the correspondents, all the military public relations crews, and all the brave men they knew, whether they like it or not'. Oldfield had access to the senior Allied commanders and his observations on their leadership and relationships make fascinating reading. The short stay in Clevedon obviously left a strong impression on him and he spoke of the town in glowing terms.

After his wartime service had ended, Oldfield worked closely with General Eisenhower in the early days of NATO before resuming his career as a Hollywood agent working with many big name stars including Ronald Reagan, Errol Flynn, Ann Sheridan, Janis Paige and Elizabeth Taylor. 

Oldfield & Reagan - Public Affairs Alumni Association

Colonel Oldfield returned to Clevedon for a visit in 1951. He was working in London on a NATO project and decided to call Ma's Pier pub (The Pier Hotel). 

"Ma started to cry and she said over and over - Barney you get on the next train at Paddington Station and come on down here. My son Jack will meet you at Bristol Temple Meads Station. So I went. Jack met me in a top hat and morning coat and a chauffeured 1926 Rolls Royce. The whole town was there to meet me when I reached Clevedon and I was showered with 'what happened to' questions."

"Late that evening a stood at the big window with Ma Coles, watching ships outbound from or inbound to Bristol, Cardiff and Newport. Ships always blacked out before, sparkled like a country fair. 'Ah Barney' said Ma Coles. 'I come here every night and think I'd even put up with a war if I could you and all my boys back again. You were a lovely lot. Remember how the others drank stouts, ales, beers and sometimes the hard stuff? But only you drank orange squash!'." 

Barney's Book

Barney Oldfield died in April 2003, aged 93. In his obituary he was described as Variety's Nebraska correspondent, a Hollywood press agent and a retired USAF colonel.  He was the first journalist to become a paratrooper and served as press aide to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. On D-Day Oldfield was assigned to write Allied communiques about the invasion before joining 12th Army Group in France. In 1945, he organised and established the Berlin Press Club in the home of former Hitler finance minister Walter Funk.

Note: I came across this story by chance having picked up a copy of 'Never A Shot in Anger'. The post war recollections from the Tecumseh Chieftain newspaper were collected by David H Wood, a volunteer at the now defunct Clevedon Heritage Centre. Happily, his research is now preserved by the Clevedon Pier & Heritage Trust.

As an aside, the British Army had a similar outfit - the British Army Film and Photography Unit. At the 'We Have Ways' military history festival in July 2022, I was lucky enough to spend time with the living history team who are reenacting what they did, what they wore and what they carried. They operate as part of the 'Monty's Men' group and pride themselves on total authenticity. The group have recently acquired one of the original movie cameras used on the front line from D-Day through to the end of the Second World War.

Living History - the BAF&PU 

Original BAF&PU Camera

To hear Barney Oldfield talking about his wartime experiences here

Local historian Mike Horsfield interviewed Maisie Coles in the 1980s. Maisie had a lot to say about the Yanks in Clevedon and you can read a transcript here.

Monday, 4 July 2022

Tom Neal - From the Navy to the RAF (1939-40)

 On the night of the 14th and 15th November 1940, my cousin once removed, Tom Neal, was killed in action whilst at the controls of a Whitley Mk V bomber over Berlin. Tom was serving with the Royal Navy so how could this be? The answer is that having taken a short service commission in the Fleet Air Arm a year earlier, Tom had volunteered to serve with Bomber Command at the height of the Battle of Britain. During this critical time, Bomber Command had lost over a thousand aircrew - approximately 800 killed and 200 taken prisoner. Short of qualified personnel, the RAF had sought temporary replacements from the Fleet Air Arm. Sub Lieutenant Thomas Alfred Neal was one of sixty pilots who had offered their services. He had already flown a number of missions before the one in which he was killed - hence his position as pilot and status as the senior officer aboard. 

Tom Neal - Royal Navy

Tom was just 21 years old when he was killed, and the impact on his family was profound. He left a younger brother, Jim Neal, who wrote about Tom in his unpublished autobiography 'Foot slogging, Pen Pushing and Publishing'. Jimmy was a journalist by trade and by the end of his career was the editor of the Yorkshire Post. During the war years Jimmy served in North Africa and Italy - a story for another day.

Tom Neal in a Toy Car - 1925

The Neal boys were born in Alton Hampshire. Their father, Thomas, was an Assistant Manager at the local branch of lloyds Bank. His wife (my Great Grandmother) is described by Jimmy as being a 'wonderful, almost saintly woman'. Jimmy recalls Tom 'discovering everything' before he did and had an early memory of making bows and arrows. He remembers Tom buying an elderly Austin Seven having saved his wages from a job at the GPO. In his spare time, Tom was studying for a degree in engineering. He also remembers Tom playing a rather elaborate joke on a posh neighbour using an imitation dog turd!

Jimmy Left, Tom Right

Tom learnt to fly with a friend called Charles Tate, whose father was the Tate of Tate and Lyle, the sugar manufacturers. Jimmy remembers that 'the two of them had just taken off from an aerodrome near Oxford when the plane crashed at Wallingford - neither were seriously hurt but there were plenty of cuts and bruises'. Tom shared his three golden rules: 'If the engine stalls don't turn, if the engine stalls don't turn and if the engine stalls don't turn!'. Not long after that Tom accepted a short service commission in the Fleet Air Arm. He completed his training at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, and became a Fleet Air Arm sub-lieutenant. As was mentioned earlier, Tom volunteered for Bomber Command and was posted to 77 Squadron at Topcliffe, nr Thirsk in Yorkshire - flying Whitley Mk Vs. 

Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt's 'The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book 1939-45' records that on the night of 14/15th November 1940, 82 Wellingtons Hampdens and Whitleys raided Berlin, hamburg and various airfields. 50 targeted Berlin but only 25 reached the city. 10 aircraft were lost - 4 Hampdens, 4 Whitleys (including Tom's aircraft) and 2 Wellingtons. It was the heaviest loss of the war so far. 

Berlin CWGC Cemetery

Tom Neal

Jimmy recalled the moment he heard of his brothers loss in his autobiography: 

Father had left our Haslemere home furnished and had moved to a private hotel in Petersfield, Hants. I joined him there on a seven-day leave pass and was expecting Tom to be with us when we received a telegram to the effect that he had failed to return from a bombing mission over Berlin and had been posted as missing. I was glad that I was with my father at this sad time and we both lived through anxious days hoping against hope that better news would arrive. Sadly, it didn't and many months passed before Tom's death was confirmed and the Admiralty sent my father a picture of his son's grave in East Berlin.'

Jimmy went on to write the following, before moving to active service with the British 8th Army shortly thereafter:  

Tom had been, not only my brother, but my best friend. The loss was devastating, and I could only resolve, if I got the chance, to fight the enemy even more strenuously than i might otherwise had done. The war was becoming a rather more personal battle.

Tom and his crew are buried in the main Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Berlin (quite near the 1936 Olympic Stadium). His all RAF crew lie with him - Pilot Officer G.D. Bailey, Sergeant J.C. Steel (19 years old), Sergeant R.W.Toomey and Sergeant V.H.Louis (air Gunner). Tom's grave acknowledges that he was a Royal Navy pilot seconded from HMS Daedalus.