This week marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day (Victory in Europe), the anniversary of the surrender of the German Army on the 8th May 1945 and the end of the European theatre of the Second World War. Sadly, this will now be a much reduced celebration than originally planned due to the ongoing public health crisis we continue to endure. But it is will also be a disappointment, as it is likely this would have been the final large scale acknowledgement of this event. Many of the Second World War’s surviving veterans are now elderly and frail and soon our last living link with the events of 1939 – 1945 will be broken forever.
During this time my thoughts turn, as probably do many of yours, to my own family stories and the service and privations they endured. My Grandfather, Henry (Harry) Lawson was a typical example of the war generation. He joined the Merchant fleet at Liverpool at the extraordinary young age of 17 not long after war had been declared. Serving on troop carriers and in large convoys of ships, he visited most of the theatres of the war, from the Atlantic and Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the dangerous and frightening Arctic Convoys. He brought supplies back to England and delivered soldiers to places such as Australia often in appalling conditions and under the ever present threat of his vessel being attacked. He spent many months in the steaming, hot and greasy depths of merchant carrier boiler rooms. Signing onto a ship was often a case of pot luck and sailors made choices based on the length and destination of the journey. His log book, which I have, lists the ships he served on including the Queen Mary and the Aquitania. All with a reassuring statement that he had been ‘well behaved.’ Harry took to smoking a pipe at sea, a habit he maintained for the rest of his life, and an easy way to settle the nerves when facing U-Boat wolf packs and treacherous North Atlantic weather. He returned from all his travels, but many of his friends did not.
This would have been a time of great stress for his parents, George and Mary Ann Lawson, as not only was their youngest son away at sea but his five older brothers served in the Royal and Merchant Navy at the same time. Christopher, John, George, Robert and William Lawson all served with distinction and miraculously all returned alive from the war (though Christopher was torpedoed twice). This feat of extraordinary good luck was considered so astonishing for seafaring families from Bootle that the story of the Lawson brothers was mentioned in the local press. Most families were not so fortunate but George and Mary Ann Lawson never had to endure the arrival of a telegram with the cold words, ‘Missing at Sea.’
My Grandfather, as was typical of that generation, saw nothing special in the years he has spent away from home and nor did he seek any special recognition. He did not linger in the past and his war medals and decorations remained unclaimed until his children surprised him with them on his 50th Wedding anniversary. When I was growing up I thought he was the bravest man I’d ever met, his medals hang on my wall today.
When thinking about the Second World War it is easy to stay focused on the darkness and the horror. Indeed it remains the most murderous conflict in Human history, infamous for the mechanised extermination of an entire people. However, I have found that this conflict also contains countless examples of individual courage and it is those stories that also carry lessons for today. These stories are often much less well known than the stories of hate and violence but they have the ability to speak to the soul. One such event is the story of what happened to the Jewish citizens of Denmark. The mass murder of European Jews is a well known and tragic part of the Second World War but the story of the Danish Jews did not follow the same trajectory as that of France, Poland and Hungary. Denmark, a small and prosperous northern European country was invaded by Germany in April 1940 and initially, Denmark received a lighter touch than other countries such as the Netherlands. The Danish King remained on his throne, and the Danish government, with some Nazi oversight, was allowed to function as normal. However, as the war progressed and the Holocaust became more frenzied, the Danish Government came under increasing pressure from the Nazis to hand over Danish Jews for transportation to the East. This only ended one way.
Thanks to a tip off from a sympathetic German official, the Danish Government knew that once night in October 1943 the Gestapo planned to arrest the small Jewish population of 8000 and deport them to the death camps in Poland. The people, government and churches of Denmark decided to act. On the 3rd October 1943 a notice went out to all the churches in Denmark, it explained that the people owed their allegiance not to other men but to God. Danish civilians hid their Jewish countrymen and women in their homes and churches and the next day Jewish families were transported across the sea from occupied Denmark to neutral Sweden. Fisherman and civilian boats were used and although Jewish people often paid for their places, nobody who could not afford to pay was turned away. The Germans managed to bring in some reinforcements from Berlin and some families were captured and sent to the Theresienstadt Camp in Czechoslovakia, but remarkably almost 95% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust of the Second World War. A memorial in Jerusalem’s Bet Hakerem area recall this time with an inscription on a plaque that reads, ‘Danish courage and Swedish generosity gave indelible proof of Human values in times of barbarism. Israel and Jews everywhere will never forget.’
I often read in the press stories about the ‘courage’ of a celebrity or a ‘courageous’ decision taken by a Government policy. Not a bit of it. Real courage, as shown above, is what people do when nobody else is looking. Real courage is to risk your life and your families for no motivation other than human kindness, empathy and the willingness of people to help another human in distress. The people of Denmark prove this to be true and I hope it is still true today.
For my own family, Harry Lawson’s war did not end on VE Day as some many other did. Japan remained undefeated for a few more months and there were troops to be brought home and prisoners to be transported. The Merchant Navy had also become his life and he remained at sea for the rest of the decade. In 1944 he returned home to his parents’ house at Number 6 Seaforth Street and married the girl from Number 32, further up his street. This was my Grandmother, Rosina Saunders. They had 2 daughters and 3 sons, one of whom is my Father. They remained happily married for the next 56 years. Harry told his grandchildren stories of his time at sea. About the time he had seen the wreck of the German Battleship, Graf Spee, in the harbour at Montevideo. About docking in New York City and taking trains across the expanse of the USA to join another ship in Los Angeles. About playing football with German prisoners of war in Hamburg, old grudges disappearing fast. He told the story of the tattoos he acquired in India, one, ‘HL loves RS,’ and the obligatory ‘anchor’ that seemed mandatory for sailors in the 1940s. His grandson sometimes tells these stories to the children of Christ the King, and they, in turn, tell him their own family stories. I have been fortunate in my career to travel with my colleagues, and with our students to some of these places. D-Day beaches, Battlefields in France and Belgium, through the streets of Berlin and Munich, Prague and Krakow. And sometimes to the gates of Auschwitz. Many of these places are still scarred by the ghosts of the Second World War. Compared to my Grandfather I have led a charmed, prosperous and safe life. But it would not have happened without his sacrifice and millions of men and women like him. I will take a few moments over the long weekend to reflective on this, and I hope you do too.
‘This is your victory! It is the victory of the cause of freedom in every land. In all our long history we have never seen a greater day than this. Everyone, man or woman, has done their best. Everyone has tried. Neither the long years, nor the dangers, nor the fierce attacks of the enemy, have in any way weakened the independent resolve of the British nation. God bless you all.’
Winston S. Churchill, VE Day, 8th May 1945.
Harry Lawson (centre), Rio de Janeiro,
Harry and Rosie Lawson, their 50th
- Wedding. His Medals hang behind him.
Today’s cultural challenge is to learn more about the escape of the Danish Jews, please see: