Ipswich: A loving wartime reunion as peace returns to Europe
Love is in the air – and not just of the royal variety. Steven Russell meets a couple celebrating 69 years of marriage in the summer and hears how their love endured wartime separation
EASTENDER Tony Booth certainly wasn’t backward in coming forwards, laughs wife Gwen. She was a young woman minding her own business when the soldier strolled past her door in the early spring of 1942. He and some pals had walked into the Cumbrian town of Penrith, hoping to spend a Sunday night at the cinema. But The Regent was shut. “Gwen was standing at her door, waiting for her mum to come back after walking the dog, and I asked her when the cinema was open. She said it didn’t open until Monday, so I said ‘What about coming with me Tuesday or Wednesday?’”
They did go to the pictures that week – “I think she thought I was rich! The seat was one-and-nine, which was a lot of money” – and the following Sunday Tony was invited round for tea and to meet Gwen’s mum and dad. (He still remembers the delicious salad dressing.)
Gwen remembers: “He was tall; he was always nicely dressed. The more I knew of him, the more I felt about him.” And going through Tony’s mind was the thought “If I don’t marry her, somebody else will.”
They were husband and wife before August was out – married at the register office just up the road from Gwen’s family home. They were each only 20.
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“It sounds crazy, doesn’t it, but you didn’t know how long you were going to live at that time,” explains Tony. “It’s one of those things: two people meet casually and something clicks. As soon as I met her I wanted to go out with her.”
Weddings then weren’t the glitzy, expensive affairs to which many couples now aspire; Gwen and Tony had few guests and there are no photographs of their big day – film being a scarce commodity at that time. Her husband was born in Leytonstone, moving to Enfield at the age of five. At 16, in 1938, he’d joined the Middlesex Territorial Regiment. Then, with the scent of war in the air, Tony decided to join the regular army – the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars – without initially telling his parents! (They gave their belated blessing after a lot of persuasion.)
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On his 18th birthday he joined the 49th Royal Tank Regiment. In 1942 the regiment was posted to Cumberland, to train on a secret weapon.
CDL stood for canal defence light and involved a powerful searchlight mounted on a tank, which could be used during night-time attacks to pinpoint enemy positions. It could also dazzle opposition forces. The system was never used in anger, however.
In the March of 1942 Tony went up to Penrith with the advance party . . . and chanced upon his wife to be.
Later, a special operation was mooted. Troops would take their tanks to Stranraer by train, cross the water to Northern Ireland, and demonstrate the Matilda tanks to the infantry there.
Not that Tony was initially aware of the details; it could have been anywhere. So, with all this uncertainty of wartime, he acted swiftly, speaking to Gwen’s father and seeking his only child’s hand in marriage.
Again, the times being what they were, the couple didn’t enjoy a leisurely introduction to married life, as Tony was sent hither and thither – training on the Cumberland fells, off to Thetford for battle training, back to Cumberland, thence to Wales – and his bride stayed with her parents.
A long separation – the thick end of a year – began in the summer of 1944 when Tony went to Normandy. “When we were in Europe, committed to the main battle, we really never stopped. Once we went into action, we were in action. That was it. We went all the way until we crossed the Rhine and into Germany.”
Son Barry was born that October – his dad, hundreds of miles away, learned the good news by letter.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like being far from home, putting your life on the line and leaving a heavily-pregnant wife behind . . .
“It’s one day at a time,” says Tony. “It sounds crazy today, but in those days the uncertainty was ‘normal’.” When soldiers went on leave, they took all their kit with them because they never knew what was going to happen, where their regiment was later going to be, and which unit they might have to attach themselves to.”
The couple’s reunion – and Tony’s first glimpse of his son – came unexpectedly and happened to coincide with peace in Europe. It’s an episode told in a documentary on the digital history channel Yesterday called Love on VE Day, due to air on May 6.
The programme looks at one of the greatest days in British history through the eyes of people who were not only celebrating victory in Europe but also births, marriages and reunions.
In the spring of 1945 Tony was fighting near Bremen in Germany, commanding an armoured carrier, when the quartermaster told the corporal he was wanted back at company HQ. What was up? Was he in hot water?
“I went in to see the major and he said ‘Your name’s come out of the hat; you’re going on leave tomorrow to the UK and your leave won’t start until you land in the UK.’ I couldn’t believe it, really.
“It was the dying days of April. We knew the war was coming to an end, but it was still a bit tricky.”
Tony was the only soldier from his regiment to receive this special leave.
It took 15 hours to reach Calais by train. Back in England, he took the train to Penrith. A telegram was sent to warn Gwen of his arrival. They’d last seen each other almost a year earlier. “We were strangers when we met, really,” he says. “I sensed that I was a stranger to Gwen in the initial stages.
“There was a feeling of love – don’t get me wrong; ‘I’m glad to be home’ – but there was a barrier between us, if you like. We had to get to know each other again.”
Barry was about eight months old . . . and cried at the appearance of this unexpected visitor! – “possibly the worst thing that could happen to a new dad, really”, says Tony.
“He didn’t like a strange man in the house, dressed in khaki. He wasn’t used to it. I suppose my black beret and battle-dress would have put anyone off!”
Tony’s surprise leave came as peace in Europe was being established. Hitler had committed suicide at the end of April and Germany formally surrendered on May 7. Tuesday, May 8 was declared VE Day – Victory in Europe – with an afternoon speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill due to signal formally the end of the conflict.
The newly-reunited couple had a mind to head to London – to Buckingham Palace – to join the throng cheering the good news. “I just wanted to join the celebrations, to say ‘Thank God it’s over,” says Tony.
So he and Gwen left Barry with his grandmother in Enfield and went off to mark this moment in history.
Tony doesn’t really know why he wanted to get to the king’s residence – “I thought ‘I’ve fought for him for six years; I’ll go and see him!’” – but although they reached Liverpool Street without drama, it was a different story afterwards.
The plan was to take the bus, but it was, Tony recalls, “absolute bedlam, really. The roads were jam-packed; the buses could hardly move”.
Gwen “actually clung on to me, because we weren’t going where we wanted; we just went along with the crowd. But it was a friendly crowd . . . everyone spoke to each other”.
He jokes: “I said to Gwen ‘You should have stayed at home; I’d have been kissing all these young girls!’”
The crush quickly became too much for them, as hundreds of thousands of revellers filled the streets of the capital. “I was squashed . . . we came out. I’d had enough,” admits Gwen. So had Tony. They headed back to Enfield and their son. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone to go to that, if ever there’s another war,” was her wry conclusion.
Despite the joy at six years of dreadful fighting, deprivation and sacrifice coming to an end, Tony found it an odd time. “One minute you’re in the line; the next, you’re in some sort of surreal atmosphere. There’s a part of you feeling guilty because you’ve left your mates out there and you should be with them.”
The horrors of war made themselves known, too.
“That first week I was with Gwen, she was worried because I was waking up at night with bad dreams and throwing my arms around. That only lasted a while, though.”
He says on Love on VE Day: “When you see your mate dead by the side of you, and it could have been you . . . or on one occasion when I got out of the carrier and I walked across, and I saw a man kneeling down, and I said ‘Are you all right?’ and I touched him and he fell over. He’d been killed by a blast and there wasn’t a mark on him . . . that’s the sort of thing that makes you a man and you’ve got to deal with that. That’s why sometimes you want to cry, and you can’t.
“I found Gwen just the same as she was: soft, pliable, lovely. I was different: I was hard and callous. I couldn’t sleep at night. I had violent dreams.”
In many ways, though, Tony considered himself lucky. “I didn’t have the moments of blackness and darkness that some of them had. Either I’m too thick or it didn’t get through!”
After his seven days of leave, Tony returned to Dover and thence to Germany. There were rumours of being sent to the Far East to fight the Japanese, but the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki erased that possibility.
Tony’s regiment was disbanded and in November, 1945, he was posted to the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, stationed near Hamburg. The Russians were sabre-rattling and the cold war beginning. “We moved up to the front, facing the Russians, and it was all a bit stupid, really.”
His military career continued, with periods in Egypt in the mid ’50s with the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, guarding the Suez Canal, and a spell in Hong Kong that same decade.
During the post-war years the couple were able to see each other “quite regularly, unless I was abroad”. Sometimes, though, the gaps might be many, many months and they would have to be content with corresponding by letter.
It does sound a bit mad, Tony reflects, but people lived like that in that era. You did what you had to do and made the best of it. “In those days you had to go and live with your parents because you couldn’t afford to buy a house and have it furnished beautifully like young people expect today.”
Things improved in the autumn of 1958, when he was promoted to regimental sergeant major and took over the Queen’s Own Lowland Yeomanry, based in Edinburgh – only 100 or so miles from Penrith, where Barry was at grammar school and Gwen was looking after her mother, who had suffered a stroke.
Second son Ian was born just after 1960 dawned. Following another spell in Hong Kong, Tony went back to Germany and then decided he would retire from the Army so he could commit more time to his family.
His final posting was to Liverpool, with a territorial regiment equipped with Centurion tanks. Again, handy for Penrith.
Being based in the north meant he could make plans for a future in Civvy Street – landing a job as a sales rep at a British Motor Corporation garage.
An official army leaving date was suggested: March 26, 1962 – his 40th birthday – after 22 years’ regular service. Within a week of leaving, Tony was working in the sales department of Tinklers and had made a smooth move to civilian life.
Later, he became a school inquiry officer with Westmorland County Council. He went to college and in the late 1960s qualified as an education welfare officer. Tony applied for senior positions and became principal education welfare officer for Suffolk County Council, moving the family to Ipswich and staying in post until retirement in 1987.
He pays fulsome tribute to Gwen, the boys and relatives. “Without the support of my family I could not have achieved any of this; and, in particular, the support of my wife, through the war years and beyond, made all of this possible.”
The couple have six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and can look back on almost 69 years of marriage that overcame the hurdles life placed before them. “And you can’t even get time off for good behaviour!” Tony quips.
All in all, he considers himself very fortunate.
“Men who went to the Middle East in ’39 didn’t come back until ’45, if they came back at all. They had five years of solid war, whereas at least I was in England up until 1944 and the war finished in ’45.
“I consider I was one of the lucky ones. And then you think of those poor devils in Burma who were taken prisoner, and the lives they had . . . It was pretty grim. People forget that.”
Suffolk: So nice they came twice!
THE notion of uprooting from Cumbria met initial opposition in the Booth household, but Suffolk soon became home – twice over, in fact.
Tony remembers coming down to Ipswich in 1971 to be interviewed for the position of principal education welfare officer at Suffolk County Council. “Gwen came down with me, and Ian (then 11), and they never spoke to me all the way back to Cumbria because they didn’t want to come down here!”
His wife had been raised in Penrith – brought up their first son there while Tony was away with the army – and there were many friends, relatives and memories in the north.
Still, they made the move, settled in the Ellenbrook Green neighbourhood in Ipswich, and Tony always promised his wife: “When I retire, I’ll take you back.”
He was as good as his word. Tony retired in 1987 and the couple had a bungalow built three or so miles outside Penrith. From their dining-room they could see Ullswater, the second-largest lake in the Lake District.
Son Barry was living in Cumbria, but then opted to take a job in London and moved south, “and left us up there on our own!” says Tony.
Ian still lived in this neck of the woods. His parents would visit Suffolk and Gwen told her husband that, actually, she wouldn’t mind coming back. “I couldn’t believe it!” he laughs. She did, though, hanker after the road they used to live in, or one close by.
One day they got a call from former neighbours in Ipswich who said a bungalow in that street was coming on the market.
The Booths bought it and moved back to their old road in 1994 – two doors down from where they used to live. It meant they had the same neighbour as before – just that now they lived on the other side!