8. Glen

The Chaplain. “Well, I‘d say there‘s peace even in war, war has its islands of peace. For war satisfies all needs, even those of peace, they‘re provided for, or the war couldn‘t keep going.” – Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage and her Children.

Gladys Mary Dobbs was born in Acton, a district of London, on 22nd October 1921. Jim always called her ‘Glen’. Glen’s father was registered at birth, in 1886, as Charles Wlodzimierz Dobrzanski and had later changed his name to Dobbs. The circumstances of his name change are likely to have been associated with racial intolerance, a particular problem in the London area.

As one might guess, the origin of Charles’ family was Poland : after some considerable research Glen concluded that it was Charles’ grandfather Izydor who had emigrated, some time in the late 1840s or early 1850s. There had been an uprising in Poland in 1848 when Austria absorbed the Cracow Republic : as an independent state Poland had then ceased to exist until World War I. Also there had been a rising in 1846, which had provoked the terrible Galician Jacquerie.

Charles lived an eventful life. Both his parents were of Polish immigrant stock and when he was a boy the family was miserably poor – his father was a cabinet maker and, once factory-made furniture became cheaper to buy, there was little work for cabinet makers. From time to time there wasn’t enough to eat at home, so Charles built up his fitness in a gym and enlisted in the army (he was too young to join up and needed to lie about his age). By the time he was 16 he was an excellent marksman and he was soon off to Malta with the Rifle Brigade and from there to the North West Frontier in India. In his spare time he would eschew the cards and drinking, instead preferring to go climbing in the Himalayas. He completed his service in about 1910 and returned to London where he took a civilian job driving a bus. He met Glen’s mother, Elizabeth Noble and they married in 1912. Glen’s eldest sister, Dorothy, was born in 1913.

Charles was still in the army ’reserve’ and was called back into service in 1914. He was sent to France with his old regiment. Conceived during a period of leave, the next child, Florence was born at the end of 1915. At about the same time Charles was lying in a shell crater. He had been shot through the thigh but had managed to stem the bleeding. However he was between the lines, in no-man’s-land, and for two days he waited. By the time he could receive treatment, his leg was infected and when told that the leg would require amputation, he refused permission. His body healed itself, though the lead he carried for the rest of his days would sometimes cause him much discomfort. Aside from the circumstances of his injury, Charles wouldn’t speak about the conditions he had witnessed in World War I : this was usual among those who returned.

After the war he went to work for a London taxi company and when enough money had been saved he purchased his own taxi. Soon he met a man who wanted to set up a bus company : Charles had experience of the bus business from before the war; the other man, Ansell, had the capital. Together they formed the Skylark Omnibus Company which became very successful. Glen, the third and last of the children, was in some ways treated by Charles as the son he never had. When she was young, Charles would often take her to work and would explain to her the running of the business and the workings of the vehicles.

When, in 1924, London bus companies became restricted by legislation and obliged by law to close and sell out, Charles simply set up the Skylark Coach Company. Because the new routes involved destinations such as Dorking, Guildford, Hertford and High Wycombe, towns outside London, this company was exempt from the legislation. Again the enterprise prospered until once more, new legislation required the company to close down, to be substituted by Green Line Coaches. This time Charles invested the money in a fleet of London taxis. He retained the coach depot at Shepherds Bush, modifying it in order to serve the same purpose for taxis. Again the new business prospered and Charles ran this until 1945.

From late 1940 Charles held the position of Mayor of Acton for two years. The circumstances of his return from France in early 1916, coupled with his indomitable business spirit had caused him to be regarded as something of a local celebrity. There is no suggestion that he was very much interested in politics (other than his dislike for the constant interference in his business enterprises) and he was not a man given to currying favour (during his army service he had twice turned down opportunities for promotion). Perhaps it was felt that he would be the right sort of man to have at the helm during wartime. Certainly the period of his mayorship spanned the London blitz and it was a busy time for Charles. He would often arrive home at breakfast time with descriptions of the nights events, some overly graphic.

By 1939 Glen had completed her schooling and achieved good ’A’ Levels. She spent two years at Cambridge (on a course which included some study of radar) and then returned to London, to work in the Admiralty. Her practical nature, pleasant manner and the ability to keep her mouth shut soon contributed to her selection for work alongside some quite senior people, mainly on secret scientific projects. She first met Jim shortly after he arrived in London, for a while they shared the same office.

From 1943 the worst of the London bombing was over, but Hitler’s use of a new weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, commenced in June 1944. In contrast to the V-2 rocket, first launched against Britain three months later, the “doodlebug” advertised itself with plenty of noise. When the noise ended nearby, one knew to take cover. Paradoxically the new weapons were too much for some of the civilians who had stoically endured the worst of the blitz in 1941-2, and paradoxically it was the V-1, with all its warning noise, that caused more alarm (though casualties per bomb were only half of those suffered per rocket). In particular it was older people, with less of their life left to lose, who seemed especially prone to losing their nerve. Not that any of it made much sense : Speer had reported to Hitler as early as 1943 that the manufacture of each V-1 required as many man-hours as the manufacture of six fighter aircraft.

As was the case for many younger people, this new development didn’t seem to change the way Jim and Glen lived. For those who were earning enough, there were plenty of good restaurants in London which appeared to be unaffected by rationing. During the better weather a good number of people would relax by day in the London parks. At night-time, though access to some parks was restricted, the blackout provided cover for intimate liaisons. A flash of a torch might cause a hurried movement into the shelter of a hollow, or a reckless escape over a barbed-wire fence.

For most, life went on as usual. In the Admiralty offices the staff were inclined to carry on their business despite bombing. Just occasionally they would take cover. Glen later described one occasion of a meeting with some high-ranking officers. During the meeting there was a daytime air-raid. Regular detonations of an approaching stick of high explosive bombs became noticeable, each detonation significantly closer than the last. There was discussion as to whether the assembled folks should take cover, but no urgency. But when the stick continued to approach and the most recent detonation had been within a hundred yards, one of the most senior people, quite a large man, flung himself under the table. One or two others joined him but most of those attending the meeting didn’t react much : there wouldn’t have been enough space left under the table anyway. There were no more bombs in that stick and those under the table got up again, sheepishly dusting themselves off.

So, Jim and Glen. Jim was basically cheerful, though in a dry, ironic sort of way. Glen, optimistic and cheerful, found Jim’s Irish humour to her liking. Jim’s decent character and good manners would also have been very evident, and his years of research at Dublin and lecturing in Belfast had matured him. In addition, Glen had studied mathematics and physics, and could understand some of the things which Jim talked about.

From Normandy in 1944, and again from SE Asia in 1945, Jim wrote many letters. The letters were numbered, thereby informing Glen should any go missing. None did, though more than once Glen received letters out of sequence. She was largely unaware of Jim’s airborne reconnaissance of enemy-held territory until after his return, and in any case she knew that his work would not expose him to the same level of risk as faced by those in the front line. Nevertheless Glen would keep herself busy while he was away.

Bibliography.

Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, Cassell 1954