Back from Flanders, Father was transferred to the newly created Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). He was soon posted to an air station at Howden in East Yorkshire, from which a fleet of airships constantly patrolled the North Sea, looking for enemy shipping. Mother moved to Yorkshire to be near the air station, and we were there for nearly four years. She and I lived alone in a primitive stone cottage in a small and isolated terrace of houses called Little Kelk. Father lived at the air station and visited Little Kelk when he could.
I have an almost photographic memory of the cottage at Little Kelk. The front door opened directly from the country lane, which had no pavements or paths. There were two tiny downstairs rooms: the front door opened into the living room, and an interior door led into the adjacent brick-floored kitchen, which contained nothing but an old wooden cupboard, a table, two kitchen chairs and a large sink of rough brown stone, with no water supply and no drain. The back door opened onto a brick path, which ran along the backs of all the cottages, of which there were about six. It led to a communal wooden pump and a little shed which was the communal earth closet. Indoors, at the top of a narrow staircase that had no landing, there were two small bedrooms, quite bare, with hooks on the wall but no clothes cupboards. That was all. It was lonely, it was primitive, and it was home.
In July 1921 my little sister Hilary was born in a Kingston nursing home. I was thrilled and delighted. Since I had prayed insistently for a little sister, this convinced me of the efficacy of prayer. I was disappointed later in life to find that prayer was not always so reliable. I was no longer an only child, though it was some years before my new sister became conversable; my usual companions were still adults. As a family of four, we moved into our new home, Flexford Farm near Guildford, in the autumn of 1921.
We encountered few people outside our own family, but we did meet farm workers, and also vagrants who were a feature of the countryside and part of the seasonal workforce. They were solitary men, usually ex-servicemen, whom the end of the Great War had left rootless, homeless and unemployed, some suffering from old war injuries or shell-shock (not then recognised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They seemed to have no family or close friends. They were gaunt, unwashed, unkempt, ragged, and they lived rough. I would sit on the grass talking to one who regularly camped on our farm – an unlikely friend for a little girl, but my parents apparently saw no cause for alarm. Old Jim may have looked sinister, but he was gentle and courteous to me, and I marvelled at his stories of his childhood, of his life in the army, in South Africa, the Jameson Raid, and the Great War.
There were several narrow escapes during the Blitz. For a while, Father’s half-sister Beatrice lived with me and Auntie Phyl at Gordon Place. Auntie Bea was in her sixties, very frail, and profoundly deaf. One evening she called out to me and said, ‘I would like a cup of tea and some toast, dear.’ I went into the kitchen to prepare it, when quite suddenly there was an enormous explosion, quite close, and the front door blew open with a swoosh. A strong wind roared up the stairs, blowing dead leaves all through the house. All the lights went out, so I turned the gas off, and went off to look for candles. Then there was a plaintive little call from Auntie Bea, ‘You’re being a very long time with that tea and toast, dear.’
[In Berlin, immediately after the German surrender]
For us civilian women, life had an extraordinary unreality. We were all individuals uprooted and forming an artificial society, without families, children, community organizations, or any social arrangements beyond messes and nightclubs. Even if one had wanted to take the air among the rubble, it was not safe to go out for a walk. It took time for law and order to be re-established, and I would very quickly have lost my handbag with all my vital documents in it, if nothing else. This was the lawless world seen in the spy novels of Len Deighton or John LeCarré. It was the sheer lack of community that I found so depressing. No shopping to do, no library to go to, no cafes to meet in, nowhere to get your hair cut.
The only social structures were the officers’ clubs. It was in one of these, in August 1945, that we chanced to hear on the wireless a brief announcement of the bombing of Hiroshima. What struck me was the strength of the officers’ reactions. These men had seen all-out war as they fought their way across Europe, and they were at that very moment in a bomb-devastated city. The news came over the radio, and we listened, and we could not believe it. One Army officer – not a softie, a tough soldier – said ‘My God, that’s not the way to fight a war. That is wrong!’ There was a feeling that this was beyond the rules of war, a feeling of great shock.
Lord William Penney, a brilliant scientist, veteran of the wartime Manhattan Project, had been Britain’s chief atomic weaponeer since 1946. He invited me to his home near Harwell to discuss each chapter as I wrote it. Often he would produce information and insights which were quite new to me, and was very helpful although never overbearing. One day as he read, he exclaimed, ‘Lorna, where did you get this garbage?’
‘From a Downing Street file,’ I told him, ‘in a minute from a Secretary of State to the Prime Minister.’
‘Fellow didn’t know what he was talking about!’ he said.
It was a lesson to me not to take important documents at face value too readily, especially when Ministers are writing about scientific or technological matters.
I asked him why, if only a few nuclear warheads could rule out the possibility of future wars, the super powers had stockpiled weapons in thousands beyond all conceivable use, even able to destroy all human life. [Lord William Penney's] answer was brief – ‘Because they were mad, mad, MAD!’
In my books I tried to be accurate and objective, and to allow the reader to draw conclusions. Suppressing my personal opinions was not without risk: some of my friends and family imagined that my association and even friendships with those who produced nuclear weapons meant that I fully endorsed the development of those weapons. I was also aware that as an official historian I was open to the suspicion of being a ‘company spokeswoman’. I inevitably thought a great deal about nuclear weapons and was delighted to be asked by Rudi Peierls to assist in the ‘Freeze’ movement in the 1980s. I have been engaged in similar activities ever since, and I am very much opposed to nuclear weapons, as well as nuclear power.
Go on, buy the whole book: www.amazon.co.uk/My-Short-Century-Lorna-Arnold/dp/098370290X
Lorna died on the 25th March, 2014, aged 98.