Since I began my role as part of the Imperial War Museum (IWM)-backed Second World War partnership programme at the Museum of Cornish Life almost three months ago, I have enjoyed the unique privilege of receiving many family stories which have been generously shared by friends of the museum and members of the public. As part of our new ‘Disrupted Lives’ project, exploring the history of wartime Cornwall, I have also uncovered new sources, such as archival documents, publications and oral histories, which often contain fascinating stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, and that are collectively contributing towards a fascinating social and cultural ‘digital’ history of Cornwall during the Second World War.
One very special story which I have discovered from my exploration of the IWM collections online is that of Mary Loveday Beazley; I like to call her ‘the Admiral’s daughter’.
Mary was born at Esher, in Surrey, in 1925. She was the daughter of Admiral Sir Bernard Rawlings, who was a well-known and successful Cornish-born career officer in the Royal Navy. Admiral Rawlings, who was born in Saint Erth in 1889 and died in Bodmin in 1962, served as a British sailor his entire life. Rawlings saw service in both the first and second World Wars, and rose to become Vice-Admiral (second-in-command) of the British Pacific Fleet by the end of the Second World War.
Mary’s father loved the navy and was very passionate about his career. She described him as a very strong personality, but also quite knowledgeable, cultured and honourable. As a young child Mary never remembered staying in the same home for longer than a few years, and she would travel with her family to a variety of exotic world regions because of her father’s naval postings.
When she was ten years old, she moved with her family to Tokyo where her father was serving as British Naval Attaché. While in Tokyo, her father was in regular contact with the Japanese Naval Staff and would have personally known Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Rawlings was very unhappy about Japanese conduct in Manchuria and China, and was very alarmed by the situation in both East Asia and Europe. Mary described the two years she spent living in Kamakura, a small city outside Tokyo. There, she and her brother were educated by an English governess whom the family had brought with them to Japan, and the children of powerful and influential Japanese used to attend the Rawlings household in order take their lessons in English from this governess. She described life within the diplomatic community in Tokyo, and how the family used to take their holidays at a special resort near Niko, which was attended by many of the staffs of the Tokyo Embassies and their families.
In 1936, while still in Tokyo, her parents bought an old country farmhouse on the edge of Bodmin Moor. It is clear that her father’s Cornish origins and upbringing was a strong factor in the decision of the family to settle there. She described her childhood there as a peaceful, idyllic and quiet country life. In 1938, she was sent to boarding school at Downhouse in Berkshire.
Mary remembered the declaration of war in 1939, and recalled hearing the broadcast by Neville Chamberlain announcing that Britain was at war with Germany. She was 12 years old at the time. The whole family were by now in Cornwall, with her parents having returned home from Japan. When war began, there was considerable panic, and a number of relatives turned up at their home in Bodmin Moor having fled London to take refuge.
In the early years of the war, the family carried on with life in the Cornish countryside and adapted to the new wartime conditions. By then her father had been promoted to the rank of admiral and was commanding a Royal Navy squadron in the Atlantic at the time, and saw service in the Norway Campaign in 1940. Meanwhile, at home on Bodmin Moor, her mother took on any kind of local war work that she could find, and she was very active in helping to look after Land Girls in the local Women’s Land Army.
Like most families living in the countryside, the Rawlings helped with many of the everyday tasks and duties that country families were expected to do in wartime. They grew their own vegetables, and tended to all the animals; chickens, ducks and pigs. Rationing was something that the family had to contend with, and it was important for the family to work hard to provide food both for themselves and for the community.
Their family accommodated members of the extended family. Many of their cousins, from Kent and other places, were sent to stay with them when the Blitz intensified. The family also took in child evacuees from London. Mary stated that the Rawlings household acted as a ‘staging house’ for the little boys and girls that arrived in the area, before they were sent on to more permanent billets.
When asked by Conrad Wood, who interviewed her for the IWM in 1999, whether she experienced much bombing or air attacks, Mary stated that relatively few such incidents occurred in her area of Cornwall. However, she did recall the air attack on Bodmin on 7 August 1942, when the town was both bombed and strafed by Luftwaffe fighter planes. Mary was sitting in a car on the main street of Bodmin when it was machine-gunned by a passing German aircraft. Although no one was hurt, Mary said that the feeling of being machine-gunned was extraordinarily frightening. The planes turned around and bombed the gas works and the railway station, which killed a family of eight, the Sargents, and injured eighteen others.
This was not Mary’s only encounter with the German Air Force. One day, while Mary was in the kitchen of her house, she heard a plane flying low outside. Assuming it to be an RAF fighter plane, she went outside to wave because, as she says, in those days “one always waved at the RAF”. She stated that the aircraft was flying so low over the house that she could actually see the pilot turn his head to look down and see her waving. It was at this moment that she realised that the fighter was German. Mary recalled that the fighter “zipped up the drive and up the country lane, and machine-gunned a Land Girl who was bicycling at the top of the lane”. Although the Land Girl was fortunately not killed in the incident, this experience, along with the attack on Bodmin, had brought the violence of the war very close to home.
During the Plymouth Blitz, Mary stated that the family could see the whole city burning in the distance from the top of the moor, and that there was a great glow in the sky. On the day after the bombing, the Rawlings and many local people travelled to Plymouth to help in the relief of the city. She said that they all pitched in working in the canteens and other duties in order to “help the wretched people who had been bombed”. According to Mary, the destruction of Plymouth was very extensive: “It wasn’t just the docks that were bombed. The whole city was bombed and there were so many people who had been killed.”
Mary’s family came through the war safely. Indeed, her father would return to Japan at the conclusion of the war: as deputy commander of the British Pacific Fleet, he was present at the Japanese Surrender Ceremony on board the U.S.S. Missouri in Yokohama Harbour on 2 September 1945. After the war, Mary would be true to her admiration for the wartime RAF. In 1947, she married an RAF Wing Commander named Hugh John Beazley who had served as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. In later life, both she and John retired to Cornwall where they both died, John in 2011 and Mary in 2013.
Mary’s wartime story is a poignant reminder that Cornwall, no matter how ‘out of the way’ people perceived the county to be throughout the conflict, did not escape the maelstrom of war. For a woman who had travelled the world as a Royal Navy officer’s daughter from such a young age, it is also noteworthy that her most striking experience of life during the war was what she had witnessed at home in Cornwall.
One quote from Mary, in particular, stands out: “The war came home”.
Digital Intern (Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme)
(The above image is reproduced by kind permission of the Imperial War Museum, London. © IWM A 21574. Vice Admiral H B Rawlings, CB, OBE, photographed on 15 January 1944 at his office in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he was briefly stationed as Flag Officer Commanding, West Africa.)
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