I don’t know why I suddenly remembered a long-forgotten character I knew when I was in Brighton as a research student, but I thought I’d write a blog post so I don’t forget him again.
I moved to Brighton in late September 1985 to start my DPhil. I’d left it quite late looking for accommodation because I’d been working in Newcastle through the summer after my graduation. In the end I had to settle for a bedsit in Hove, quite a long way from central Brighton in a road called Goldstone Villas, not far from Brighton & Hove Albion’s old stadium, the Goldstone Ground.
Round the corner from my place was a pub – I’ve forgotten the name – which became my local. After a few visits there I became friendly with one of the regulars there, a man in his sixties who was known to everyone as Solly, short for Solomon. He was, as I soon came to realise, something of a local celebrity.
Solly was a tall man, always immaculately dressed, and (I would say) handsome for his years. He was also (quite obviously) gay and (also quite obviously) Jewish. He had a great sense of humour and was a wonderful raconteur, but at the same time very kindly and self-effacing; he was liked by everyone in the pub (which wasn’t a gay pub, by the way).
Like everyone else I took an immediate liking to Solly; I greatly enjoyed his company and we had dinner together quite a few times in addition to conversations in the pub. On one of these occasions he told me his life story, or at least some of it. It turns out he was of Anglo-Austrian extraction, with an English mother and an Austrian father, although he had no trace of an accent. He was born in Austria, but his parents sent him to live with relatives in England during the 1930s because they could see what was going to happen there as the power of Nazi Germany grew; he never saw either of them again.
Solly arrived in Brighton when he was about 11 and he was 17 when World War 2 broke out. He immediately tried to join up, but was refused because he was too young. When he reached 18 he tried again but was still refused. He went to London (at the height of the Blitz) to try enlisting there, but was also refused, possibly because of his German-sounding name (and also possibly because of his sexuality).
Having failed to join up he returned to Brighton in late summer 1940 and joined the Local Defence Volunteers (the “Home Guard”). Given his appearance in later life I imagine he would have looked at this time rather a lot like Private Pike from Dad’s Army.
I remember many of his hilarious stories of how shambolic the Home Guard actually was, as well as how they were largely engaged in helping the Police deal with crimes such as racketeering and looting, but there was one particular striking incident that has stuck in my memory.
On 7th September 1940 the War Office issued the following communique:
Message to all UK units: codeword CROMWELL. Home Defence forces to highest degree of readiness. Invasion of mainland UK expected at any time.
After being informed of this signal Solly and his comrades turned up to be issued with the equipment with which they were expected to stop the invasion. In his case it was an ancient pre-WW1 vintage rifle, three rounds of ammunition, and two improvised grenades. With these meagre supplies, they were supposed to hold their positions until reinforced, possibly for up to 7 days.
As they walked to their posts all the volunteers were certain that they had no chance and that none of them would survive the night. The talk was exclusively of the need to make all their shots count. If each man could kill at least one German before he himself was killed then the invasion might be thwarted. Solly certainly had no intention of allowing himself to be taken prisoner, as he knew all too well how he would be treated by the Nazis.
After an agonizing wait, and several false alarms, dawn broke. The Germans never came.
As it turns out, if they had come, Solly’s platoon would have been right in the front line: Operation Sealion (the planned invasion of England) involved the landing of paratroopers on the Downs just behind Brighton with the intention of securing the high ground behind the landings and the main road to London ahead of the invasion:
Solly did finally succeed in enlisting, but his good knowledge of the German language meant that he was given a desk job, translating documents and such, until the Normandy invasion when he finally got to fire a weapon in action, although he landed some weeks after the initial assault, when his unit was attacked south of Caen. He didn’t hit anyone.
Incidentally, the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings passed in June 1944 but it’s worth noting that the German defensive lines were not really broken until August. In fact, on this day in 1944, British and Canadian forces were engaged in heavy fighting about 6 miles from Falaise, while the Americans were executing a wide encircling manoeuvre designed to surround and trap the German army.
Anyway, back to the 1980s. I didn’t stay long in the Hove bedsit and moved out early in 1986. About six months later I happened to be in the area so popped into the pub to see Solly. He wasn’t there; he had passed away suddenly of a heart attack in the Spring.Follow @telescoper