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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May 2005, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Coming home
By Charles Wheeler
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's Coming Home

Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images
A young soldier is welcomed home
The guns weren't alone in falling silent at the end of World War II. When troops returned from the battlegrounds they often found family members who didn't want to discuss the war. The result could be a difficult, sometimes painful, adjustment for everyone.

World War II was a global conflict and when it ended hundreds of thousands of allied servicemen and women found themselves in a vast queue - waiting for the moment when, quite literally, their number came up for demobilisation.

Prisoners of war were given priority. David Wilson, a Merchant Navy officer, was among the 51,000 British POWs held by the Japanese. His journey home took him from Tokyo Bay to Peldon, a village near Colchester where his father was rector. The neighbours dressed the road where he lived in flags. He was welcomed like royalty.

But David found nobody he could talk to about his years at sea and in Japanese captivity. His father, he remembers, showed no interest whatsoever and his mother believed that telling his story would only bring back David's pain.

'Restless'

"It felt like a conspiracy of silence," he says. "I was desperate to tell people what the Japanese and the camps were like."

Younger ex-servicemen and women who, like me, were in their very early 20s in 1945, usually settled into civilian life quite easily. For those who had been away from home for years it was often hard to rebuild relationships - and just as difficult for their wives.

Peggy Lockey and her husband had both been in the Army. He had been overseas for four years.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Troops returning from war at London railway station
"One had got to get to know one's husband again," she says. "We'd lived very different lives for years. It took a very long time to forget what you had had in the beginning."

John Barton had spent three years in North Africa.

"My wife did not want to hear about my war," he says. "I found it extremely difficult to build up a normal home life. I was always restless. I never stopped being restless."

Soldier Len Scott came home with 300 letters from his wife Minna in his kitbag, thrilled by the prospect of seeing her again. She had not told him that she'd been injured in a V1 attack in 1944, had been in psychiatric care and no longer felt able to continue with their marriage.

"The result was that soon after I got home we separated, staying in our home for several months as brother and sister," he says. "I knew that if I was to get her back it had to be on her terms. And it turned out to be worth it. On and off we had 63 years together and a very happy life."

Dignity

Other couples say perhaps they didn't try hard enough, or that counselling might have helped. There were many divorces, at one point a backlog of 42,000 waiting to go through British courts.

The war's end was most harsh, I believe, for the millions of displaced men, women and children who had no homes to go back to.

At the start of the war Roman Halter, a 12-year-old Polish Jew, was confined to the ghetto at Lodz. Within two years his father and grandfather had died of starvation. Twelve months later, in Auschwitz, his mother, sister and her two small children were gassed to death.

VE Day celebrations in London's Piccadilly Circus
VE Day celebrations in London's Piccadilly Circus
Roman escaped. He spent the next year in a futile search for relations, indeed for any surviving member of the 700-strong community in which he had spent his childhood. In 1945 he was one of 732 orphans brought to Windermere in the Lake District by a Jewish charity.

"We badly wanted to record in some way what had happened to us, but that was positively discouraged," he says.

"When I went for a swim I used to find a tree where I could be alone and think about my family. I missed them terribly but I had to keep that to myself. In the end I decided that since I had no power to plan my life I'd go with the wind and see where life took me."

Roman says that what he found in Britain was decency.

"People have no idea what it means to be hated and to feel that tomorrow you may be extinguished. Here people looked at you differently. I discovered that we're not equal in any way other than dignity and that made me feel equal to a judge or a lawyer and a policeman."

Roman became an celebrated architect and painter. Four of his paintings, testifying to his wartime years, are currently on show at Tate Britain.

Coming Home programmes will be broadcast at 0900 BST and 2130 BST from Monday 9 May to Friday 13 May on Radio 4.




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