By David Rogers. July 16, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC – Few people living in Blowing Rock can claim to have been “blessed out” by Winston Churchill, but seasonal resident Derrick Barrett is one of them. He smiles now, but those were not happy times in his native England.
With the movie Dunkirk now playing in movie theaters across the U.S., Blowing Rock News had an opportunity to speak with Barrett about what it was like living and growing up in wartime London. Although he has lived in the U.S. for almost 70 years, there are of course hints of national pride for England, his homeland, that sneak into the conversation.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): What prompted this conversation is the new movie Dunkirk that is in theaters now. What significance does Dunkirk have for you?
Derrick Barrett (DB): Well of course I was in England when the rescue or evacuation of British and Allied troops occurred. I was 17 at the time. As soon as I was allowed to because of my age, I enlisted in the Army, but that wouldn’t be for about six months after Dunkirk
BRN: Now from what I know in studying history, the Allied troops were pinned down at Dunkirk and facing either annihilation or surrender to the Germans as almost certain. I understand that military historians still debate why Hitler issued an order to halt the German army’s advance, but that delay allowed the Allies something like three days to organize their evacuation by the British Navy from the shores of France at Dunkirk.
DB: Yes, Hitler did not take advantage of what he had, which was an incredibly superior military advantage.
It doesn’t matter. It was Winston Churchill.
BRN: So being in the homeland, in England at the time, what did you actually hear about the Dunkirk situation as it was happening?
DB: Well, of course the radio was reporting on it all of the time. My starkest memories are of the trainloads of soldiers being moved across London after they had been evacuated from Dunkirk, after the Army and Navy brought them home. That is what I recall most vividly from 70 years ago.
BRN: Once you had enlisted, where were you stationed?
DB: Initially I was in what is called the North Country, in the northern part of England. And then later I was part of the Army that occupied Germany.
BRN: Did you go across the Channel on D-Day?
DB: No, that was on June 6, 1944 and I went across a little while after that, but still in 1944.
BRN: From my research of the Battle of Dunkirk, it sounds like the Allies, particularly the British, owe a debt of significant gratitude to the French military divisions that stood their ground while the Allies were evacuated. And the history books report that after the British Navy had gotten their boys home, Winston Churchill insisted that they go back and evacuate the French, too.
DB: Yes, he did. My personal experience was that I lost my uncle in that battle. He was in the Welsh Guards, which was part of the rear guard that allowed the troops to be evacuated. That was a great loss for our family. He was a wonderful man, with whom I was quite close.
BRN: Now that you have mentioned family, let’s talk a little bit about your upbringing. Where were you born and raised?
DB: I was born in London, in a borough called Lewisham, in the south east part of the city. It is really quite a good size borough. Today its population is close to 100,000.
When the war started my father was sent to the south coast of England with his company. He was in the insurance business, with a major company. They evacuated all of his people down to the coast, to a town called Eastbourne. That is where the Armed Guard manned a 6-inch naval battery that had been set up for defense purposes. He enlisted and was stationed with that Armed Guard.
There is a bit of a funny story about that artillery. The first time they fired it in practice it broke all the windows along the south coast shore!
I lost that part of my life.
BRN: What about your mother and any siblings? What happened to them?
DB: My mother was a housewife before the war. That is what women did back in those days. But she went into the Army, too, and did her service in London. My elder brother, Jack, was in the Air Force, part of the ground crew, an instrument maker.
BRN: Can you share with me some recollections about your time in the Army, in France and Germany? Maybe some battles you were in?
DB: Fortunately, I was never in direct war action.
When the war started, England nationalized all of the fire services. They were controlled by the government, everywhere. With London and other parts of the country being bombed continuously, you can imagine how important it might be for the fire departments to be coordinated.
I had joined what was then called the National Fire Service, whose members were called upon to attend to the aftermath of German bombing raids and coastal shelling from France. So that was what I was doing when I finally was allowed to enlist in the Army. And I couldn’t get in (to the Army) quick enough.
BRN: What was your job, your role in the Army?
DB (laughing): Believe it or not, I was in tanks. At 6 ft. 4 in. tall, I was in tanks.
BRN: So that made an awful lot of sense, right? A tall guy like you inside a tank?
DB: No, not all. But that is what we needed so that is the assignment that I got.
BRN: What was that experience like?
DB: Going through training, it was very intense. The training was compressed because they wanted to get us on the front lines, get us in there.
For a 17 and a half year-old, in a way it was an incredible experience. “Enjoyable” probably isn’t the correct word to describe the experience because this was war, after all, and England as a nation was facing its sternest test. But it was something very different and I was doing something to support the defense of our nation. So there was a sense of importance in my life.
I trained in tanks and we were always supposed to be ready for an invasion (by Germany). That was one of the great concerns. Anywhere you went in the south part of England, you could see the preparations for defending our country against an invading force, for doing battle if the Germans came.
D-Day was June 6th, 1944 and I was allowed to join later that year. By the time I got over to Germany, the war was starting to wind down. After I got done with my training, they sent me over to Germany as part of what they called the Army of Occupation.
Although 6 feet and 4 inches tall, they put me in tanks — because that is what we needed at the time.
BRN: Where were you stationed in Germany?
DB: First in a place called Bielefeld, then up to Hamburg. Later, I was part of the War Graves Commission. They sent me everywhere as part of that. Our job was to find the servicemen who were buried, wherever, identify them, and bring them back home.
BRN: I am guessing that was a fairly solemn responsibility.
DB: Oh yes. It was very solemn.
BRN: What are some of the more poignant or dramatic memories that you have of the war?
DB: It was being in The Blitz, Germany’s bombardment of England, night and day. I will never forget that.
BRN: So was the bombing all the time?
DB: One thing about the Germans, they are very precise. They would fly over and bomb every night at 6:00 pm. You could set your watch by it.
Without question, The Blitz was the most dramatic thing in my life. I lost a lot of people that I knew, friends. The end of my street was completely wiped out by the bombings.
BRN: Are you looking forward to seeing this movie, Dunkirk?
DB: Yes I am because it will bring back a flood of memories. There is a very deep sense of loss because of all the people I knew, including my uncle, who didn’t live through The Blitz and the war. We had some real tragedies. I remember once that a bomb went down an escalator to the underground and killed hundreds of people. Those are the bad memories.
BRN: Do those memories ever get any easier?
DB (long pause): If you don’t think about it. I can’t say that I had wonderful times during the war, but after I joined the National Fire Service, I had a lot of experiences that would never have happened if I hadn’t joined the Fire Service during the war.
The Blitz…I will never forget that.
BRN: What did you do when you got out of the service, after the war?
DB: My younger brother emigrated to Canada and I followed him two years later. That is how I came to be in this part of the world. Later on, he planned a trip to Florida and invited me to go with him. When I saw Florida, I said, “That’s where I want to live.”
BRN: What prompted your brother, and then you, to emigrate to Canada?
DB: Oh, after the war times were very hard in England. There was still rationing, for example. Things economic were pretty bleak. As far as a land of opportunity, for us that would have been Canada because at one time it was part of the British Empire, the British Commonwealth. There were still a lot of commercial ties between the two countries.
BRN: What did you do once you were in Canada?
DB: The answer really starts earlier than that. When I was 14, I went to work at the Air Ministry in London. It is the government agency responsible for all air traffic. So I went back to the Air Ministry, where I was in the photography department. After a couple of years I followed my brother to Canada.
BRN: What did your brother do in Canada? Did he have a job waiting for him or did he just go with a sort of blind faith that he would find work?
DB: My brother went to Canada, really without a job and also without a trade. But he decided that he was going to be a welder. That decision eventually led him to start a welding supply business, his own company. He sold welding supplies all over Canada.
After convincing me that Canada was, indeed, the land of opportunity and that I should follow him, he greeted me in Quebec when I arrived on the ocean liner that took us up the St. Lawrence Seaway.
BRN: So what did you do? What kind of job did you find?
DB: Well, back at the Air Ministry I was in the photographic department. So I had knowledge about photography. When I got to Canada I looked for a job in photography and got into a company, where I was for a couple of years, in Toronto.
After the war, times were very hard in England. Canada was our land of opportunity.
BRN: Then you went to Florida?
DB (smiling): Like a lot of things, it was a matter of happenstance. My brother wanted to visit Florida and invited me go with him. I fell in love with the idea of living in Florida.
BRN: Did you stay in the photography business?
DB: The short answer is “no.” One of the things that I found out when I came over was that it would be very difficult to get into the photographic business. So I went into banking. I started at the bottom, what you call “entry level.” About two years later, I became president of one of the banks in Tampa.
BRN: Really! How did you move from the bottom to the top in just two years?
DB: I guess they needed people and I guess I appeared to be somewhat intelligent or something. This was back before branch banking. They sent me to one of their independent banks.
I was with Landmark Banks, which was acquired by C&S (Citizens & Southern) of Atlanta in 1985. I was in the banking industry for 31 years.
In 1989, I was with the Resolution Trust Corporation, which was charged with liquidating the assets of the failed savings and loan companies after the S&L crisis.
BRN: How did you discover Blowing Rock?
DB: A good customer of mine in Tampa owned a house in Seven Devils. One day he told me I should go see his place up there and threw the keys on the desk.
So we came here once and that started me off in wanting to get a summer place in the High Country.
BRN: Of your different jobs…the Air Ministry, photography, banking, fire service….what did you find the most stimulating?
DB: I’d say the photography side of things.
I started in banking at the bottom, at entry level. In two years I was CEO.
BRN: Have you gotten into digital photography at all?
DB: No, once I gave it up, I gave it up. It is unbelievable what you can do, though, with digital photography. You can produce photographic images that are almost real.
BRN: So your real profession turned out to be banking.
DB: Both my wife, Anita, and I come from the banking industry. Our permanent home is still in Tampa. But it is beautiful up here.
BRN: And much cooler!
DB: Yes, it is probably 90 down in Tampa now.
BRN (laughing): Well, folks in Charlotte today might think that is cold and have to break out their sweaters. I heard it was a 100-102 in Charlotte yesterday!
DB: Well, Tampa might be that way, too…It is the humidity that gets you.
BRN: You know, as you were talking about your life and times during the war, it occurs to me that, basically, your young manhood was interrupted by something very dramatic and tragic.
DB: Well, I really lost that part of my life. As soon as the war started, that was the end of my family as a family unit. We never really came back together once the war started. We all went different directions and we never all of us got together at the same time again. My mother and father were in the Army. My brother was in the Air Force. We lost my uncle in the Battle of Dunkirk. When my younger brother was of age he joined the British Army and went to Palestine with his regiment, trying to keep the peace in the Middle East.
BRN: What did people think at the time, I mean in real time, about Germany and Hitler?
DB: Simple: Hitler and Germany were the enemy.
BRN: Did people think of Hitler as the crazy despot that he turned out to be?
DB: Oh, Winston Churchill used to tell us that all the time.
BRN: Did you ever get to meet Mr. Churchill?
DB: Yes, I did. As a matter of fact, he told me off one day!
BRN: Told you off? You mean like bless you out? What on Earth for?
DB: For whistling in the hallway of the Air Ministry. I was making too much noise. Unbeknownst to me there was a big sign out front that said there was to be no whistling or singing or noise of any kind in the building. He was at one end, going down to the War Room, when he heard me.
BRN: So you got blessed out by Winston Churchill.
DB (laughing): Yep, for whistling. It might seem a bit silly now, but at the time I guess it was a serious matter.
BRN: Do you remember what song you were whistling?
DB (smiling): No, but it doesn’t really matter. It was Winston Churchill.