‘Fred Cornwell’s War’: the story of one man’s and his family’s war, 1942-46

My family historian wife, Jane Barder, has exhaustively researched and written a fascinating and often moving account of her father’s (and his family’s) experiences during the second world war, from the time when he was called up into the army to the day when he was formally ‘demobbed’ (demobilised, or discharged): Fred Cornwell’s War.  There was nothing special about Fred Cornwell’s war, and everything about it was special. Some of Jane’s account derives from narratives describing other soldiers’ experiences in the same ship or army camp or hospital at the same time, much of which was clearly true of Fred’s experiences too.  Other parts come from Fred’s own army records, his few surviving letters home, and Jane’s and her younger sister’s own memories.  Her sources are duly recorded with numerous links to original documents.  Her story is illustrated by some surviving photographs (‘snaps’) and facsimiles of original documents.

Jane’s testimonial to her father’s war-time experiences also gives a thought-provoking impression of the impact on herself, her mother and her sister, and on her other relatives and school-friends, of her father’s long absence, far away in unidentified foreign lands and in permanent danger, while back home in London she and her family were in a different kind of danger, from nightly bombing and rocket raids, bombed out of their home, evacuated to distant Lancashire that was as alien and hostile as if they had been deported to Timbuktu, billeted on reluctant relatives and even more reluctant strangers, hearing only occasional and long out-of-date news of the absent Fred (“well, at least we know he was still alive when he wrote that…”).

All this is meticulously researched — as it should be, written by an experienced historian — and extraordinarily readable, to the point of being riveting.  And it is written without a hint of self-pity.

Of course I’m prejudiced, and it shows. But read it for yourself and see if my assessment of this unique document is justified.  The full text and illustrations are at
https://barder.com/family/history/fred-cornwells-war. Just click that link.

If you have any comments on Jane’s paper, please add them here, at https://barder.com/4771.  Links to accounts of other people’s wartime experiences will be especially welcome.

Footnote:  If you want to print out Jane’s paper, click on the word “here” , or on the same link just above the list of footnotes (end-notes) almost at the end of the document.  This will produce the same text in MS Word, including the illustrations, which you can print out in the ordinary way.

Read and enjoy!


1 Response

  1. KEITH MORRIS says:

    I want to comment on Jane’s history which is both fascinating and moving, as you rightly described it. It was a real tour de force to trace sources which came close to reproducing Fred’s experience. A labour of love indeed. 

    The Cornwells certainly had a tough war. They were very lucky to have survived it. Those Anderson shelters provided a pretty flimsy refuge. Fred’s survival through his repeated bouts of diphtheria and dysentery was remarkable, not to mention the mysterious injury or ailment caused by the landing rehearsal. The US tragedy at Slapton Sands comes to mind. And, of course, the risks to British service personnel in Jerusalem in those years were extremely high, especially at HQ. 

    I was intrigued by his coding experience. On the first part of my Naval Russian course we were classified as Coder Specials and did a 3 week course at St Budeaux, by the Tamar bridge, to justify it. And in my first two diplomatic postings- Dakar and Algiers- spent many hours with a one time pad and code book. Work both tedious and absolutely critical. 

    The home front was a saga too apart from the close shave. Such movement, including to Lancashire, must have been a nightmare for Mother. And much more London-based time with its risks than most children faced. 

    It made me feel rather guilty(not overly) about my own cushy war. We could have been in the frontline – Hastings where I was born – but in September 1938 we moved to Southport. The very few bombs which fell there were from German bombers lightening their load escaping from Liverpool. But in May 1941 I had measles and could not sleep and we watched Liverpool burning – 20 miles away and dead flat and the whole sky lit up. 

    My father was based at home but spent some nights fire watching in Leigh where he was the Inspector of Taxes. He had a long commute – 20 miles by train to Wigan and 12 more by bus to Leigh. The worst part was that his office was 200 yards from the deepest pit in Britain. The coal dust he breathed in did no good to his one functioning lung. He was gassed at Passchendaele in October 1917. We woke to his coughing every day and he spent several weeks each winter in bed with emphysema. At least he was there. No real hardships.