Despair after VE day… the men left behind by victory

Newspapers bulged with small ads placed by demobilised officers. One journalist followed up

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

After all the carousing and flag-waving that followed VE day in 1945, millions of young men fortunate enough not to be still fighting the Japanese faced a problem. Having spent five or six years in uniform, they needed jobs. For those who lacked explicit civilian skills, which meant most, it was hard to persuade employers that a talent for flying a Spitfire, commanding a gun battery or navigating a destroyer qualified a man to run a factory or even sell socks.

For years after the shooting stopped, newspapers bulged with small ads placed by demobilised officers. Many such entries exuded unconscious pathos. That quirkily brilliant writer Richard Usborne had the notion of investigating the responses received by such men, who had risked much and borne life-and-death responsibilities. He recorded the outcome in the Strand magazine, then edited by my father.

Usborne wrote to 71 ex-officers who offered their services to employers in what was then called the ‘agony column’ of the Times. He heard back from 33, of which the following are typical examples. An ex–submarine captain, aged 27, admitted in his ad that he had ‘no specific qualification’, but said he was ‘accustomed to responsibility, hard work, loyalty and exercising initiative’.

He was offered one job in a West Country hotel and another selling insurance, together with a third which proposed ‘something peculiar, which I suspect was a bit illegal’. He told Usborne that, as a former lieutenant-commander who had been earning £600 a year in the Royal Navy, his name had now been on an appointments register for six months without result. He concluded with some bitterness: ‘I venture to prophesy that the ex-officers of this war, highly trained, war-seasoned, intelligent people, will think very hard before serving their country again, except under compulsion.’

A 26-year-old ex-gunner major described himself as ‘ex-public school, widely travelled, good languages, has edited Austrian national newspaper, available now’. He reported two responses to two insertions of his ad, one of which said ‘Provided that you can keep yourself for a few months, I may have an extremely attractive proposition to offer, connected with a new departure in journalism’. The other invited him to invest £500 of his own money in a new journal.

Another demobilised major, 27, with a Cambridge degree, boasted ‘excellent French and German, good Hindustani and Japanese’. He was variously invited to apply for a traineeship with an oil company, to join the sales department of a coal tar company, and to sign up for a business course. He told Usborne he had finally accepted a traineeship which would pay him one third of his former Indian Army pay, and less after tax.

A 39-year-old ex-Royal Navy lieutenant commander with a Master Mariner’s certificate, ‘experience in all classes of ships, yachts, surveying, compass-adjusting, keen, adaptable, used to responsibility’, received no replies at all: ‘I am afraid there is little doing for men of my class.’

The same applied to a 32-year-old ‘ex-regimental officer, public school, married, previous senior administrative experience colonies, excellent references’. This man said that he was rejected for a government business training scheme on the grounds that he was too old: ‘When I volunteered in 1940, my friends told me I was a fool. I am beginning to see what they meant.’

A captain in the RASC, 33, concluded his advertisement ‘anything considered, but not selling insurance or vacuum cleaners’. He told Usborne he had posted a hundred job applications and received 75 replies declining his services. He added: ‘I am afraid that myself and other officers who served overseas have been gravely disillusioned. We came home under the illusion that industry was turning over from war to peace production, and simply crying out for key men…Fortunately my wife is in teaching, but I am in the hellish position of making fires, washing dishes and beating carpets, and typing like fury in my spare time. So, believe me, my morale is very low.’

A former staff officer asserted in the Times — one of 24 such ads he placed — that he had 12 years’ pre-war business experience, ‘latterly as director, widely travelled, speaks fluent German, good French, Italian, Spanish’. He received no replies, and observed ruefully that prospective employers seemed wholly uninterested in his wartime experience: ‘I know that in the vast majority of cases ex-servicemen have not proved a success in business jobs, and this applies especially to officers.

‘The main complaint is that they are “all wind”, and too busy reminiscing to get down to work. Officers show an understandable tendency to look down on their new employment… City employers prefer to seek, for responsible jobs, persons who have not been in the services.’

It would be mistaken to regard Richard Usborne’s survey of veterans — people whom 21st-century newspapers dub without discrimination as ‘war heroes’ — as entirely typical. A good many former officers found themselves peacetime jobs without recourse to advertisements in the Times. Yet each of the personal stories he recounted represented a tiny personal humiliation, even tragedy. Many young men who emerged from the war alive and unwounded were nonetheless somehow used up.

They had commanded bomber groups, destroyers, infantry battalions, yet a dismaying number ended up running chicken farms — a familiar resort of commissioned war veterans — or becoming secretaries of suburban golf clubs. As for Dick Usborne, who had spent the war in SOE, he went on to pen that small masterpiece Clubland Heroes, a study of the fiction of Sapper, Dornford Yates and John Buchan. He especially relished the way in which the career of Captain Hugh Drummond, DSO, MC, began after the first world war with the insertion of a small ad in the Times: ‘Demobilised officer, finding peace incredibly tedious, would welcome diversion. Legitimate if possible; but crime, if of a comparatively humorous description, no objection. Excitement essential.’ Sapper claimed that ‘Bulldog’ Drummond received 45 replies to that insertion which, as Usborne sadly remarked, was far more than any of the captain’s real-life counterparts achieved, a world war later.

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  • scott_east_anglia

    Nothing much had changed by the 1980s when I left the RAF. Those whose military role involved state of the art systems often could walk into jobs with the defence industry companies. Others whose service trade translated into civilian life were similarly snapped up.

    Training received in the services was, in my experience, superior to the civilian equivalent by a factor of several times.

    Fortunately the service was extremely helpful in providing resettlement courses, not only providieng invaluable advice on how to apply for a job, but also making training available that allowed a complete change of career – in my case the data processing industry.

    Of course, employers were aware that we were the recipients of a pension and gratuity, so tailored their salary offers accordingly. If took several years before I was earning as much I as was as an RAF navigator.

  • jim

    The issue was “mobilized” to great effect in the classic British crime films The League Of Gentlemen and A Prize of Arms in the early sixties.

  • rtj1211

    Typical of Britain – utter unimportance of risking your life for several years for ‘your country’ and then your country simply says: ‘So what?’

    My personal view is that unless you have ex servicemen/women at the top of civilian economic entities, this will be the status quo. It is a moral obligation, not a narrow economic consideration which says: ‘We have to respect the need to prioritise the reintegration of ex service personnel into civilian life if we wish to be called a civilised country’. You may get the odd moralist in UK business, but the majority either can’t or won’t make special concessions.

    • Bertie

      “Typical of Britain – utter unimportance of risking your life for several years for ‘your country’ and then your country simply says: ‘So what?'”

      Agree, depressingly so. But, at least there was one party recently that actually wanted to do something about this age old problem….

      “Army veterans would be retrained as immigration officers under Ukip policy proposals targeted at voters who “believe in Britain”Its manifesto will place heavy emphasis on policies to curb immigration
      and to support the armed services. The two issues will come together in a
      new plan to re-employ 6,000 armed forces veterans as immigration,
      police and prison officers.

      Might explain the 4 million odd votes it got somewhat.The “contract” between government and armed forces has been well and truly reneged on by consecutive governments.

      Ex Armed forces personnel need,and frankly, are owed, all the help they can get vis relocation once they leave the forces…

      It seems however that less deserving criminals in prison, or foreign aid, are deemed more deserving that Brits who fight for their country. Sad indictment of how low our country has fallen.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Hardly in the same league I realise, but on returning to UK in 1993 after 20 years in Japan, I quickly realised that this experience was totally irrelevant when it came to securing paid employment. As this was not an immediate need, I began to take the job interview rather less than seriously.
    “We pay Stg.12,000.”
    “Do you mean per month or per year”? Because after my ducking and diving experience in Japan, per month was a figure I was familiar with.
    Bottom line, when you’re going, stay gone. Brits aren’t interested in your traveller’s tales.
    Those de-mobbed officers back in 1945 with languages plus overseas contacts and experience would have done better to have sought their fortune in the colonies. In fact it would have been the ideal moment. Fast patrol boat, local crew; a little import- export … Returning to UK was an emotional rather than a logical reaction, as they soon realised when they found themselves washed up on the beach of an ungrateful nation that felt it had no obligation to its heroes.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • But you are a Japanese (in your late 30s or early 40s), dear … “Those de-mobbed officers back in 1945 with languages plus overseas contacts and experience” … What a crazy [Japanese] fantasist you are!

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Still keeping the looney around for laughs, Spectator?

  • Malcolm Stevas

    A poignant piece, interesting and rather touching. It’s reminded me to look up “Clubland Heroes” of which I’d heard previously, must get hold of it.
    This piece further reminded me of possibly the best WW2 (and pre-war) autobiography I’ve ever read, the trilogy by John Masters which commences with “Bugles And A Tiger” – 1930s, his experiences from Sandhurst to officering with the Gurkhas and fighting on the NW Frontier. The third volume, “Pilgrim Son”, details his post-WW2 life – in America. After three or four generations of his family serving the Crown in India, he came “home” to Blighty, being met with indifference and worse. He and his wife made the giant step to the USA, where after some initial struggles, in a few years’ time he found fame & fortune as a highly successful novelist.
    Masters’ bitterness at being rejected both by newly independent India, and by England, is palpable. Clearly he was one of very many.
    My own father was still an NCO when the war ended – and he always said the best decision he ever made was accepting an invitation to stay on in the RAF, into which he was subsequently commissioned and served nearly 40 years. Civvy street had not looked inviting.

    • Verbatim

      Apposite response!!

  • Roger Hudson

    So?, like modern discarded ‘other ranks’ did then end up on the streets, i think officers get a far better pay-off than a trooper.

  • albert pike

    Could it be that as Einstein said: military personnel are brainless, and for that reason not worth employing?

    • Kit Ingoldby

      I very much doubt Einstein ever said anything so stupid.

      Stupid people have a habit of inventing and repeating idiotic quotes and falsely attributing them to Einstein.

      • albert pike

        “I very much doubt Einstein ever said anything so stupid.”

        Quite right, what he said was:

        “”He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already
        earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake,
        since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace
        to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at
        command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble
        war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base
        an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war
        is nothing but an act of murder.””

        • Kit Ingoldby

          So you admit he never said any such thing, and that the ‘quote’ you invented was totally false and not even a poor paraphrase.

          Interesting that you choose to muddy the waters with some irrelevance about Israel. I suppose liars like you can’t cope with straight talk.

          • albert pike

            I said Einstein said military personnel are brainless.

            His actual words were: ” for him the spinal cord would surely suffice”

            Making them somewhat brainless. Are you in the military?

          • red2black


    • carl jacobs

      While it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, fall be’ind”,
      But it’s “Please to walk in front, sir”, when there’s trouble in the wind

      Take your white feather plume, Sweet Little Man.

      • Having the brain of a genius doesn’t signify political or moral intelligence. If Jack had a penny for the foolish comments of genius fools he would be a very wealthy man.

        Now, if Einstein been referring to Manchester City supporters ….

        • carl jacobs

          Hrmmm. 73. 68.

          Bitterness doesn’t become you, Jack.

          • Man Utd 20 – 3 Man City
            History, Carl.

          • carl jacobs

            You said that you grew up in Essex somewhere. Shouldn’t your favorite club be something like Tottenham?

          • West Ham.
            You live in Manchester?

          • carl jacobs

            Of course not. I was grafted in, as it were. You know this.

            So how then did you end up with Manchester United as your favorite club?

          • Jack is a citizen of the UK – not of Essex. Even as a boy in Essex, Manchester United had a special attraction. Watched them a couple of times against the ‘Hammers’ and was mesmerised.

            Jack lived in Manchester in the early 1970’s and started supporting them seriously then. This was a dark decade for the club when Law, Charlton and Best were on the decline – and they were relegated. The highlight was preventing Liverpool from winning the Treble (which Man Utd won in 1999) by beating Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup Final in 1977.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Sounds a bit like that war criminal Kissinger.

  • That’s capitalism for you. The only law it is obliged to follow is that of supply and demand. It has no intrinsic morality. Why should employers express gratitude by employing men who fought to preserve the very conditions necessary for them to run their businesses?

    Unless, of course, it is the right thing to do and our nation had a debt of gratitude to these men.

    • carl jacobs

      Or maybe it was because you elected a Labour Gov’t right after the War?

      • Good point – but they weren’t running the economy or making decisions about who private businesses employed.

        • Kit Ingoldby

          The Labour government very much was running the economy. After the war the Labour government had almost Soviet levels of control of the economy.

          • Castro Spendlove

            …and everything else too. If I recall correctly, from David Kynaston’s ‘Austerity Britain 1945-51’, Mass Observation recorded a buzz-word that described the generally dissatisfied temper of the population: that word was ‘regulationitis’* This went some way to explaining Labour’s precipitous electoral decline from ‘landslide’ to a majority by five seats.

            * I stand to be corrected on the exact word but it did end in ..itis and the gist of my example is accurate.

      • Shorne

        A Government that was overwhelmingly elected by returning Servicemen and Women.

        • carl jacobs

          Yes, well, how did that decision work out for them? Not so good it seems. At least for those who wanted a job.

          • Shorne

            It worked out very well, it resulted in the Welfare State.

  • davidshort10

    They weren’t ‘men’ left behind. They were officers as in ‘officers and men’. Let our hearts bleed for these privileged people. The ‘men’ probably had useful trades to return to and were valued more post-war than they had been pre-war due to a new government that had their interests at heart.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    The mental block that demobbed Brits in 1945 were saddled with (and to a lesser extent even to day), was that they sought full-time employment with a job description. Essentially something they were qualified to do. But when you “ship yourself somewheres east of Suez” you quickly learn not to ask about the Company’s pension plan at the job interview.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • A Japanese man aged under 50 years like you would know about what happened back in Britain back in the late 1940s?!

  • Sten vs Bren

    What these unemployed and sometimes disabled men need was an Iain Duncan Smith figure, offering them punishments for their failures. Added to their poverty, that would have been sure to see them on the road to success.

  • Shorne

    Not just Officers,

    “Me that ‘ave been what I’ve been —
    Me that ‘ave gone where I’ve gone —
    Me that ‘ave seen what I’ve seen —
    ‘Ow can I ever take on
    With awful old England again,
    An’ ‘ouses both sides of the street,
    And ‘edges two sides of the lane,
    And the parson an’ gentry between,
    An’ touchin’ my ‘at when we meet —
    Me that ‘ave been what I’ve been?”


    Rudyard Kipling

    About the much earlier Boer War, in the end the narrator decides he would be better off returning to South Africa and asking one of his former enemies for a job

    “An’ a Dutchman I’ve fought ‘oo might give
    Me a job where I ever inclined
    To look in an’ offsaddle an’ live
    Where there’s neither a road nor a tree —
    But only my Maker an’ me,
    And I think it will kill me or cure,
    So I think I will go there an’ see.”

  • Verbatim

    This predicament was never more poignantly realized than in William Wyler’s 1946 masterpiece “The Best Years of Our Lives”. One of the finest films ever made.

    Please don’t think this was solely Britain’s problem, all those of you who’ve made shrill contributions to this discussion. And who would be foolish enough to think that business was going to emerge thriving and unscathed from the war so as to be able to hire vast amounts of labour once the war ended? That’s a no-brainer.

    Demobilization takes years to achieve.