WWII Sailors on Leave in London

In July of 1943, four years into World War II, our dad, George K. Broatch, and two Royal Canadian Navy buddies were on leave in London, England, taking in the sights. George was just six months past his 18th birthday. Black-and-white snapshots show the three uniformed young men visiting Trafalgar Square, the London Zoo, and other attractions. It must have been a very welcome break — especially with the sun out.

London, July, 1943, left to right: “Stark” (no first name provided); Jack Bates; and Dad at a London monument.
Dad hanging out with one of the huge bronze lions in Trafalgar Square.

I looked at these photographs several times before I wondered why Canadian sailors would spend their leave time in a city as heavily bombed as London was during the war. I particularly wondered why they would visit the London Zoo, because I’d seen a great film once about how the zoo animals were moved out of central London to safe havens during the war. As were trainloads of London’s children.

From movies and novels about World War II, I had formed the mistaken impression that intensive bombing of London had gone on throughout the war. With a little research on the Library and Archives of Canada website, I learned that London suffered its heaviest and most destructive bombing by the Nazi German Luftwaffe (air force) during the Blitzkreig (“lightening war”), an intensive eight-month bombing campaign that actually has beginning and end dates in the history books: September 7, 1940, to May 11, 1941. The bombing didn’t end after that, but it didn’t go on every single night for eight weeks, as it had during the London Blitz.

Jack Bates, Stark, and Dad at the London Zoo. Stark has what looks like a Signalman insignia on his sleeve, like Dad’s.
Londoners carrying on with daily life, amid the bombing rubble. (Photo in the public domain.)

The loss of life and property was mind boggling. Out of 40,000 British citizens killed by Luftwaffe bombing during the war, nearly 20,000 lived in London, and a million homes were damaged or destroyed there during the Blitz. Fortunately, the Germans’ overall bombing strategy was faulty, and Britain was not defeated. In fact, after the Blitz, given the many safety strategies in place in London throughout the war, people carried on with their everyday lives as much as possible, literally walking through the rubble to work.

So George and his companions, like the Londoners who remained in the city, were indeed going on outings, including a visit to the zoo, in spite of periodic air raids and the destruction all around them. The sailors would not have gotten to see the giant pandas, elephants, orangutans, chimpanzees, and ostrich, however. These large, exotic animals had been moved to Whipsnade, a park north of London, for greater safety.

London, October, 1943. Memorial to Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, in Kensington Gardens, London. Left to right: Dad, an unnamed sailor, and Stark.
Dad bundled up in a warm overcoat at Piccadilly Circus, London, in front of the famous Guinness clock (now gone).

Dad’s London snapshots piqued my curiosity for another reason. Several of them had the sailors’ names neatly penciled on the back in small capital letters, along with a date. It looked to me like something a professional photographer might do. To figure out if that was even possible, I headed back to the Library and Archives of Canada website to check out war photography.

I discovered that in 1940 all branches of the Canadian armed forces began using photographers for “historical, news, or propaganda” purposes, and as a way to capture “the human side of war” for the people back home. That last phrase probably didn’t originate with Canada’s then director of naval information, who made the official statement of purpose for his office. The “human side of war” approach has been part of war reporting around the world ever since cameras were invented. Many of us can quickly bring to mind famous photos from the wars that followed World War II.

Dad and a group of sailors, including Stark, in front of the London hotel where they stayed on leave.

About 50 years later, in the early 1990s, Mom suggested to Dad that he join her and her sister Marjorie on a trip to Europe that included England. He declined the invitation. When I heard this story, I asked him why he hadn’t gone. I was taken aback when he replied, “Oh, it’s too old, and damp, and cold.” To which I responded, “But, Dad, you were there during the war – that was a long time ago.” He smiled but didn’t reply.

There are many reasons he might have decided not to go on the trip to Europe. It wasn’t until recently, when I was looking through his old photos and reading about World War II, that I could imagine why the England trip might not be his first choice for a travel adventure. A couple of years later, though, he took a photography tour of China and thoroughly enjoyed it.

2 responses to “”

    • So nice to see your name pop up in the Comments, Nikki! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Your mother would only have been 16 or 17 at the time. I wonder if Dad sent letters home?

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