The heroes and heroines keeping up wartime morale

How old are the '˜White Cliffs of Dover'?

Friday, 21st September 2018, 13:39 pm
Updated Thursday, 13th September 2018, 13:15 pm
Co-op Wartime Concert Party.

Ask anyone of a certain age and they might reply, “Oh, about 75 years...”

In their minds, the question triggers memories of Vera Lynn’s wartime song, which did so much for morale, both with civilians and the military, as Britain battled alone against Nazism.

Poster for the Cooperative Players.

Those cliffs became emblematic of resistance: the rather crude radar erected on the cliffs combined with that haunting song boosted morale early in the Second World War.

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Still, at the age of 102, Vera Lynn soldiers on.

She was not alone, of course.

Anne Shelton, Noel Coward, Harry Secombe and others donned their battle dresses to entertain the troops.

And international names too, like Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Marlene Dietrich, also played their part.

But there were also countless – now largely forgotten – local heroes and heroines doing similar work across Britain.

Locally here, amongst those in Northumberland, for example, were the Cooperative Players, hailing from Ashington, which was then still the ‘largest pit village in the world’.

Records survive of this group, the originals in copperplate script, cataloguing 228 ‘gigs’, as we now might label them.

Theirs was a remarkable contribution, beginning with a first concert back in the Co-op Arcade in Ashington (known as ‘The Store’), on February 22, 1940.

It concluded with the final performance noted in the records at Netherwitton, on June 18, 1944.

In each case, the mileage for the performance trips was noted – Netherwitton was a 34-mile round trip from Ashington.

The longest regular journey – 70 miles in total – was to Callaly Castle; the castle had been requisitioned as a military hospital from Major Browne and his family.

The record mileage seems to have been 110 miles return to Craster to entertain troops there.

This meticulous record also gives a terse description of the make-up of each of the groups entertained.

These largely included troops, but there was also a cabaret for employees back at the Ashington arcade, and entertainment for the Aid To Russia Fund, the Royal British Legion, hospitals, and both the Merchant Navy and Royal Air Force bases.

The distances travelled were significant, especially remembering that there was no street lighting and a total blackout in force, and indeed that motor transport was nowhere near as sophisticated as we have come to expect nowadays.

Often the venue was a military camp, and the log of the various concerts indicates the sheer multitude of military institutions in mid and North Northumberland at the height of hostilities.

In a quite different vein, Lord and Lady Armstrong were generous in opening Cragside to the Cooperative Players on a number of occasions.

On one evening, Lady Armstrong gave away one of her evening dresses to one of the young lady stars of the band.

This particular young lady, one Florence Cullingworth, was but 12 years old at that first concert in the Cooperative Arcade in February 1940.

Florence was ‘The Wonder Girl Accordionist’, featured in the poster included here. On that occasion she was appearing with ‘her boys’.

Slight of stature, the accordion enveloped Florence. Her stamina, however, took her through the gruelling programme of concerts throughout the war; she is pictured third from the left in the photograph.

At the far end of that front row, one of ‘her boys’, the drummer, was David Thompson, who, after the war, would become her husband.

David was first an electrician at Woodhorn Colliery (now the Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives, including an exhibition of works by the Pitmen Painters), and then later, an electrical engineer at the controversial Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston in Berkshire.

After the war had ended, David continued to play, only this time in the Ashington dance band, The Arcadians.

Once again, it was the Cooperative Arcade in Ashington that lent them their name.

Even at these concert parties, however, the reality of war could not be forgotten.

One fatality was noted on the night of May 12, 1942, when the players were performing at Longhirst.

Still, 70 years after the end of Hitler’s war, a cursory tour of the more westerly parts of the county reveal quite clearly the remains of several air bases.

So RAF Woolsington is now Newcastle Airport, Boulmer aerodrome remains a key link in Britain’s radar defences, and up until recently was a focus of air-sea rescue services.

RAF Eshott and RAF Milfield still act as hosts to gliders and light aircraft. RAF Acklington, one of the bases surviving longer into the post-war period, has spawned a prison, and RAF Brunton remains an outpost for radar equipment for Boulmer.

Just over the border in Scotland, near Swinton was the remains of RAF Charterhall, the final base for Richard Hillary, a wartime flying ace and the author of the well-known war memoir, The Last Enemy.

Alongside airbases, abandoned army huts, which can be found scattered over the county, tank traps and pill boxes have survived.

Alnmouth’s beach has a backdrop of tank traps, and a lane leading eastwards to a farm at the northern end of Eglingham, unaccountably sports a pill box.

Despite the tragedy of war, there was also a sense of the romantic.

Concert parties and travelling players were at the very heart of boosting wartime morale.