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Despair after VE day… the men left behind by victory

Newspapers bulged with small ads placed by demobilised officers. One journalist followed up

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

After all the carousing and flag-waving that followed VE day in 1945, millions of young men fortunate enough not to be still fighting the Japanese faced a problem. Having spent five or six years in uniform, they needed jobs. For those who lacked explicit civilian skills, which meant most, it was hard to persuade employers that a talent for flying a Spitfire, commanding a gun battery or navigating a destroyer qualified a man to run a factory or even sell socks.

For years after the shooting stopped, newspapers bulged with small ads placed by demobilised officers. Many such entries exuded unconscious pathos. That quirkily brilliant writer Richard Usborne had the notion of investigating the responses received by such men, who had risked much and borne life-and-death responsibilities. He recorded the outcome in the Strand magazine, then edited by my father.

Usborne wrote to 71 ex-officers who offered their services to employers in what was then called the ‘agony column’ of the Times. He heard back from 33, of which the following are typical examples. An ex–submarine captain, aged 27, admitted in his ad that he had ‘no specific qualification’, but said he was ‘accustomed to responsibility, hard work, loyalty and exercising initiative’.

He was offered one job in a West Country hotel and another selling insurance, together with a third which proposed ‘something peculiar, which I suspect was a bit illegal’. He told Usborne that, as a former lieutenant-commander who had been earning £600 a year in the Royal Navy, his name had now been on an appointments register for six months without result. He concluded with some bitterness: ‘I venture to prophesy that the ex-officers of this war, highly trained, war-seasoned, intelligent people, will think very hard before serving their country again, except under compulsion.’

A 26-year-old ex-gunner major described himself as ‘ex-public school, widely travelled, good languages, has edited Austrian national newspaper, available now’. He reported two responses to two insertions of his ad, one of which said ‘Provided that you can keep yourself for a few months, I may have an extremely attractive proposition to offer, connected with a new departure in journalism’. The other invited him to invest £500 of his own money in a new journal.

Another demobilised major, 27, with a Cambridge degree, boasted ‘excellent French and German, good Hindustani and Japanese’. He was variously invited to apply for a traineeship with an oil company, to join the sales department of a coal tar company, and to sign up for a business course. He told Usborne he had finally accepted a traineeship which would pay him one third of his former Indian Army pay, and less after tax.

A 39-year-old ex-Royal Navy lieutenant commander with a Master Mariner’s certificate, ‘experience in all classes of ships, yachts, surveying, compass-adjusting, keen, adaptable, used to responsibility’, received no replies at all: ‘I am afraid there is little doing for men of my class.’

The same applied to a 32-year-old ‘ex-regimental officer, public school, married, previous senior administrative experience colonies, excellent references’. This man said that he was rejected for a government business training scheme on the grounds that he was too old: ‘When I volunteered in 1940, my friends told me I was a fool. I am beginning to see what they meant.’

A captain in the RASC, 33, concluded his advertisement ‘anything considered, but not selling insurance or vacuum cleaners’. He told Usborne he had posted a hundred job applications and received 75 replies declining his services. He added: ‘I am afraid that myself and other officers who served overseas have been gravely disillusioned. We came home under the illusion that industry was turning over from war to peace production, and simply crying out for key men…Fortunately my wife is in teaching, but I am in the hellish position of making fires, washing dishes and beating carpets, and typing like fury in my spare time. So, believe me, my morale is very low.’

A former staff officer asserted in the Times — one of 24 such ads he placed — that he had 12 years’ pre-war business experience, ‘latterly as director, widely travelled, speaks fluent German, good French, Italian, Spanish’. He received no replies, and observed ruefully that prospective employers seemed wholly uninterested in his wartime experience: ‘I know that in the vast majority of cases ex-servicemen have not proved a success in business jobs, and this applies especially to officers.

‘The main complaint is that they are “all wind”, and too busy reminiscing to get down to work. Officers show an understandable tendency to look down on their new employment… City employers prefer to seek, for responsible jobs, persons who have not been in the services.’

It would be mistaken to regard Richard Usborne’s survey of veterans — people whom 21st-century newspapers dub without discrimination as ‘war heroes’ — as entirely typical. A good many former officers found themselves peacetime jobs without recourse to advertisements in the Times. Yet each of the personal stories he recounted represented a tiny personal humiliation, even tragedy. Many young men who emerged from the war alive and unwounded were nonetheless somehow used up.

They had commanded bomber groups, destroyers, infantry battalions, yet a dismaying number ended up running chicken farms — a familiar resort of commissioned war veterans — or becoming secretaries of suburban golf clubs. As for Dick Usborne, who had spent the war in SOE, he went on to pen that small masterpiece Clubland Heroes, a study of the fiction of Sapper, Dornford Yates and John Buchan. He especially relished the way in which the career of Captain Hugh Drummond, DSO, MC, began after the first world war with the insertion of a small ad in the Times: ‘Demobilised officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential.’ Sapper claimed that ‘Bulldog’ Drummond received 45 replies to that insertion which, as Usborne sadly remarked, was far more than any of the captain’s real-life counterparts achieved, a world war later.

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