Blackpool Tower in the War Years 1939-1945

During the Second World War the town took on a number of new roles as Blackpool turned its attention from entertaining the masses of the North of England to providing facilities for soldiers, airmen and others involved in the war effort.

The tower top was taken over by the Royal Air Force as an emergency radar station. A 40 foot section of the spire was replaced by a wooden structure bearing the receiving aerials, and a number of steel cantilevers were inserted into the tower at various heights to carry their transmitting aerials. It must be remembered that Britain was at this time pioneering the use of Radar and that this work would have been labelled ‘Top Secret’.

Many technical difficulties had to be overcome by the engineers and service personnel before the radar station call could operate efficiently. There was interference from the tramway system on the promenade, and even the steel structure on the tower itself interfered with reception. The Tower Company’s chief engineer, Mr K. L. Foster worked night and day to solve the problems encountered by the RAF radar operators, whose task was to maintain surveillance of the Irish Sea from the Crows Nest at the top of the tower.

The tower top was also used as a lookout post by men of the National Fire service and the home guard, and the buildings below were both used by the RAF and the Royal Artillery for training purposes. Blackpool had become a joint training camp with more than 90,000 servicemen billeted in the town. The RAF used the ballroom and the Royal Artillery held lectures and training sessions in the Tower Circus each afternoon; in the evenings both ballroom and circus reverted to their normal role, providing entertainment for both the troops billeted in the seafront hotels and boarding houses and the holidaymakers who came to Blackpool for a brief respite from aiding the war effort. Throughout the dismal years of war, the Blackpool lamp of entertainment still shone brightly in spite of the blackout.

The first six days after declaration of war on third September, 1939, all places of amusement had been compulsorily closed. The tower staff kicked their heels, wondering what was going to happen. Then, realising the value of keeping the nation’s spirits up, the government decided theatres, cinemas and ballrooms could serve a more useful purpose open than closed. Blackpool immediately swung into action, training troops by day and entertaining them at night, along with the many visitors who crowded into to the West Coast resort.

Each evening every ballroom in the town was packed with servicemen of all ranks dancing with local girls or visitors, many of them making a conscious effort to forget what the future might have in store for them. Many lasting friendships were forged, sometimes at the price of absent and temporarily forgotten sweethearts in their home towns and villages. The bands of the towns ballrooms found a winning entry with a whole new range of tunes and a change of tempo the dancers, south of the border down Mexico way and deep purple giving way to run Rabbit run, and lets hang out the washing on the Siegfried line and we’ll meet again.

When the well-dressed and better paid American troops arrived to sweep the British girls off their feet, to the intense disgust of the poorly paid and drably dressed UK servicemen, a whole new range of dances influenced mainly by Glenn Miller and his band arrived with them.

As the towers male employees enlisted or were called up on conscription, the Tower Company replaced many of them with women. The ballroom bands found their ranks depleted many of them never to resume their former big-band status. When Reginald Dixon joined up he was replaced by a female organist, the talented Ena Baga, sister of Florence De Jong, who used to take her place when her sister was ill. Ena’s signature tune was Smoke gets in your eyes, which became a familiar tune to the servicemen as Reginald Dixon’s signature tune had been to pre-war holidaymakers.

Concerts were held in the ballroom to raise cash for “salute the soldier week” and “War weapons week “and other similar campaigns. One such concert was given by the Halle Orchestra, conducted by Richard Tauber. In the Blackpool theatres there appeared all the big theatrical names as shows from London were transferred to the north of England to escape the blitz on the Capital.

Broadcasting from the tower was a regular feature, both the tower band and the organist’s frequently being heard on the radio in programs designed to entertain the forces at home and abroad. The sound of the tower Wurlitzer could be a reminder of better times and a boost to morale for a sailor in the wastes of the North Atlantic or an airman servicing a bomber in the Western Desert. Near the end of the war Harold Grime, the editor-in-chief of the Blackpool Gazette and Herald, while serving as an officer found himself leading a unit of Indian soldiers onto the stage of the Tower ballroom during one of the concerts. As to the crowded audience rose and cheered them somebody whispered to him Mr Grime what would the national anthem of India be? Puckering his brow, perplexed Mr Grime whispered back heavens, there are about 150 of them. The bandleader was by no means at a loss. The band struck up land of Hope and Glory, which seemed to fit the bill quite adequately and everyone the Indian soldiers included cheered and clapped.

With the invasion of Europe people in Britain could begin to look ahead to the end of the war and to plan for a return to normal. The war years had a mixture of sadness and happiness to thousands of people as they had lost relatives in the fighting and of new and lasting romance in the ballroom. Many American servicemen married English brides, and not a few returned home at the end of the war with broken hearts behind them. Some of the ladies were with child

But if the war had its moments of tragedy, it also had its lighter moments as When Lord Haw Haw, a British broadcaster whose propaganda program transmitted from the German station was listened to with amusement by many Britons, announced that the Luftwaffe had bombed Blackpool Tower, completely destroying it. It was even said that picture of the tower lying on the sands alongside the central Pier had been published in German newspapers. To no one’s surprise the tower was seen next morning in its usual place; one wit remarked that our engineers must have been extremely busy during the night getting it back into position. With victory over Germany and then over Japan there began a slow return to normality, and members of the tower staff returned to familiar scenes and roles as they were demobbed from the forces. The lift service, reserved for official personnel during the war, was restored to the public in August, 1946, and Walter Dutton, lift man for more than 18 years, declared that he was delighted to see the public again. For six years he had taken RAF radar technicians and civilian fire watchers to the top; he had seen a German aircraft swooping to bomb Seed Street, when Blackpool suffered its only air raid of the war; and he looked out from the tower top at the fires as Liverpool blazed after the bombing of the town and the Merseyside docks.

When Reginald Dixon hung up his uniform and returned to claim his place at the Wurlitzer, Ena Baga moved back to London. She came back to Blackpool only to play at the new Odeon console for a Sunday night concert, and on that occasion, told a local reporter that her stay in Blackpool had made her famous in London; a common remark was “overheard you at the Blackpool Tower”. Blackpool was sorry to see Ena Baga go. She kept in close touch with many friends she made during a wartime stay in town, telling them of her first television audition, that she found exciting.

Plunging back into his work, Reginald Dixon returned to a round of broadcasting and making records; some of these records sold more than 70,000 copies, earning him a gold disc from the record company concerned. He was immensely amused when one afternoon a dear old lady, evidently with no idea that she was talking to the organist, asked him what time do they feed the animals? At 3.30 he said again with a smile. Dear me, said the old lady, looking quite annoyed how silly to have both performances at the same time!

And amongst his fan mail Reginald was delighted to have a letter from a 71-year-old George Boyce who told him that he was one of a dozen ornamental plasterers who in 1898 and 1899 and worked on the new ballroom. The havoc wreaked by servicemen’s boots on the floors of the ballroom and other rooms plus the enforced postponement of essential maintenance work during the war resulted in a spate of repairs when peace returned. The ballroom was closed but redecoration, and the opportunity was taken to making number of changes in the general arrangement of the tower buildings. The menagerie and the aquarium were both enlarged and the Oriental lounge was redecorated and refurnished.

The post-war years saw a period of austerity as Britain sought to repair the damage caused by five years of hostilities and restore its shattered economy. With almost all the necessary materials in short supply progress was slow as Blackpool prepared itself for the holidaymakers who crowded into the town, glad to escape for a week or two from the restrictions of austerity and rationing. As many as 80,000 people regularly visited tower during the days of high summer. By 1952 the whole town had been restored to a peacetime appearance and was enjoying something of a boom. So many people were coming to Blackpool on day trips to see the illuminations that the town’s railway lines were hopelessly congested at the height of the season. Some trains did not leave until one or two o’clock in the morning, and the Tower Company was granted a special licence allowing it to remain open till the last the crowds had left for home. Reginald Dixon regularly remained at the organ console until two in the morning entertaining the trippers till the departure time of their trains. Blackpool Tower still had come through the war and had secured its place in the post-war new Blackpool.

Source by Kathy Perrin

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