Tuesday, October 17, 2023

How Stanley Unwin and Uncle the elephant won the war

Before he became a performer, Stanley Unwin worked on the technical side of radio:
In 1940, Stanley successfully applied for a job at the BBC working on transmitters as a 'key thumper'. The Second World War was now underway and the Corporation desperately needed Morse operators across the country so he went off to do his bit at the Borough Hill transmitting station in Daventry.
Writing the foreword to the history of the station - Daventry Calling the World - in 1998, Unwin remembered that:
All of us at Daventry belonged to the Home Guard, having daily drills and rehearsals for potential air raids. A password was given each time a shift changed.
And there were air raids:
In 1942 a daylight raiding German plane strafed the buildings where we were ensconced, causing me to dash under the desk in the transmitter room. Mr Bill Gilbert, of Middlemore Farm, Daventry, informed us that it was a Dornier 215 fighter bomber. 
During the blitz on Coventry the drone of the raiding bombers accompanied the sound of the BBC monitored programmes as the incendiary bombs illuminated the horizon. Even the buzz of falling shrapnel from the anti aircraft fire could be heard on the transmitter site.
But Stanley Unwin wasn't the only giant of the British nonsense tradition at Daventry during the war. 

Stella Martin Currey writes of her father, the Rev. J.P. Martin, the author of the Uncle books:
With the beginning of the second world war he was minister in Daventry to the BBC engineers who were transmitting to the Empire at war and across occupied Europe.  Before the war they had secret experiments in the development of radar, the weapon which enabled the Spitfires to win the Battle of Britain. German planes crossed his Northamptonshire skies to destroy Coventry and its cathedral. ...

My mother Stella with my brother Andrew and myself was evacuated at three hours notice because Colchester was the initial target for Hitler’s Operation Sealion for the invasion of Britain in 1940. We were the most fortunate of refugees in Daventry with Nancy and J.P Martin. As a child one was always being told Uncle stories which J.P. Martin had dreamed up in the night.

It was exciting to see J.P. Martin collected in a jeep as a chaplain to conduct services at the army munitions depot at Weedon, which had been built in the Napoleonic wars. He was preaching again to men who again were fighting for freedom, dying in yet another war. Little did he think when he had volunteered as a chaplain in 1918 that he would be talking to his own sons, both born in the first world war and now of an age to be killed for their country.
Did Unwin and the Revd Martin meet? Were they friends? I'm sure they would have got on.


tonyhill said...

My father was a schoolteacher and being very interested in tape-recording and broadcasting was, I suppose, a pioneer of community radio. He was a friend of John Bridges, a BBC producer, and he was instrumental in getting Stanley Unwin along to our house to be interviewed and recorded by a group of his students. This must have been in about 1961 - I hadn't realised until I looked him up on Wikipedia that that was fairly early in Unwin's career. All I remember about his visit was that it took him quite a while to get into his 'Unwinese' patter, but that once he did there was no stopping him.

Jonathan Calder said...

A nice memory. Unwin was a sound recordist after the war, and he must have been good because he went on Royal tours for the BBC.