It is hard to tune into any media these days and not hear yet another example of how Russia has tried to undermine ‘the mechanics of the well functioning’ Western democracy with her sly, base tactics. But as I discovered during my camping trip to Bewdley a few days ago, this was not always the case. In the late 1940s, Russia was viewed as Britain’s ally, entertaining her officials with luxurious gifts, showing off ballet dancers and parading tanks.
It must have been a cold January in 1947 when Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery inspected a Stalin tank during his visit to Moscow. Clad in a squirrel-lined great coat received as a gift by the Soviet Army, he exchanged his views on war technology with Marshal of Tank Troops Rybalko and the two agreed that Russians would be taught at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
And if you find this bizarre today, rest assured that I have not stumbled on these facts in Wikipedia but in the Volume 10 of The War Illustrated No 253, published on 14 March 1947.
I love the Georgian town of Bewdley but I have never stayed camping in the rain before and, hopefully, I never will, again! When I found out that I could abandon my guys to fishing and visit the local Cherry Fair instead, my mood was slightly elevated. It took me and my daughter about 20 minutes to walk from the Hopley Camping and Caravan Site to Bewdley Town Museum. And here we were, walking in and out of exhibition galleries, where they had not only cherries sale, but a complete 1940s show, manned by staff in authentic costumes, air raid shelter demonstration, singing assemble and plenty of war time newspapers and books to choose from.
I spotted the Marshal in the impressive coat made of Russian squirrels (animal rights activists, close your eyes now) embracing a giant warhead and thought I must have it. Luckily they were selling the issues of War Illustrated for a mere £1 per item – and these were not copies, but the real yellowing papers of the day.
But that wasn’t all, of course, as we were reaching to the bottom of the cones of chips and Regatta was in a full swing on the river Severn in front of us, I leafed through the paper and was stunned by the middle spread of the Roll of Honour. Here, hundreds of photos of men of all ages were looking bravely into the camera all those years ago and back at us.
Have they considered, in that fleeting moment, the pose that could potentially define their death? Has the photographer cheered them on? Some of them looked so young (look at the bottom left corner), we wondered whether they had lied about their age. And how interesting that it took two years for the newspapers to publish the identities of the dead.
At the back of the paper, a Pte. F.Kendrick of Walsall was guarding the Soviet-British border in the Helmstedt village some hundred miles from Berlin, apparently the busiest crossing point on the Russian line. On another page a group of young Germans ‘made a foray into the Russian zone in search of food’, the newspaper said. Pte. F. Kendrick, in his gloves and boots, looked positively determined despite the cold. I bet he preferred it nice and crisp in the morning, not like the damp and mild cold we get here in the Black Country!
The red and white pole, dividing Germany into Russian and British zone is gone. The Berlin wall, dividing Europe into East and West adversaries is gone too. Only Britain is trying to build another divider between itself and the Continent.
70 years on, I wonder, how the world has changed and what we might expect next…