November 2020: Oxfordshire in the Second World War

On 9 November (appropriately near Armistice Day), Stephen Barker described events in Oxfordshire during the second world war.

From September 1939, Oxford City Council workmen were already constructing public air raid shelters. Over the weekend 1–4 September, 16,000 children were evacuated to rural Oxfordshire. Some enjoyed new experiences, such as seeing rabbits and growing vegetables. Others desperately missed their parents, including one whose subsequent angry letter to her cruel ‘hosts’ survives in the Banbury archives.

Local Defence Volunteers (later renamed the Home Guard) were formed to resist the feared invasion. At Bicester, one volunteer, when asked what steps he would take if paratroopers landed at a local airfield, replied ‘Big ones, sir!’

German bombers were deceived into attacking a mock factory built outside Banbury, instead of the real factory vital for the production of aluminium airframes. However, on 3 October 1940 bombs devastated Banbury gas works and railway goods yard.

Women ‘land girls’ replaced farm workers. Jean Procter, founder of the British Women Land Army Association, vigorously disputed their depiction in Angela Huth’s novel Land Girls: ‘… this stupid story comes along about us getting off with the farmer’s son. There were no farmers’ sons; we’d replaced them.’ There were however tales of flirtations with American servicemen and German prisoners of war.

In 1942, American servicemen were issued with a guidebook of instructions on British customs. They were warned, for example, against saying ‘bloody’ in mixed company.

Women led the success of ‘make do and mend’, and Banbury girl guides won a county prize for organizing waste paper collection.

Units from Oxfordshire led the capture of the Pegasus bridge on D-day in June 1944, and took part in the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. On VE Day in the Bartons, for example, the feeling around the bonfire was more of relief than celebration.

Answering questions after his talk, Stephen Barker explained that there is no evidence for the (always implausible) claim that German bombers spared Oxford because Hitler wanted it as the capital of occupied Britain.

On 14 December Victoria Bentata will talk about Albert Einstein and other academic refugees in Oxford. Non-members are welcome to join this Zoom meeting for a fee of £2.50: search for Radley History Club talks.

Reports of earlier meetings