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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 Northern England to providing facilities for soldiers, airmen and others involved in the war effort.
The top of the tower was taken over by the Royal Air Force as an emergency radar station. A 40-foot section of the top was replaced by a wooden structure that supported the receiving antennas, and a number of steel brackets were inserted into the tower at various heights to support their transmitting antennas. It must be remembered that Britain was at this time a pioneer in the use of Radar and that this work would have been labeled ‘Top Secret’.
Many technical difficulties had to be overcome by engineers and service personnel before the radar station call could be operated efficiently. There was interference from the tram system on the promenade, and even the steel structure on the tower interfered with the reception. The Tower Company’s Chief Engineer, Mr KL Foster worked day and night to solve the problems encountered by the RAF radar operators, whose job it was to maintain surveillance of the Irish Sea from the crow’s nest atop the tower.
The top of the tower was also used as an observation post by National Fire Service men 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 stationed in the town. The RAF used the ballroom and the Royal Artillery held lectures and training sessions in the Tower Circus every afternoon; in the evening, the ballroom and circus returned to their normal role, providing entertainment both for troops stationed in the seaside hotels and boarding houses, and for holidaymakers who came to Blackpool for a short break from helping the war effort. Throughout the bleak war years, Blackpool’s fun lamp still shone brightly despite the disruption.
For the first six days after the declaration of war on September 3, 1939, all places of entertainment were compulsorily closed. The tower staff kicked their heels, wondering what was going to happen. Then, realizing the value of maintaining the spirit of the nation, the government decided that theaters, cinemas and ballrooms could serve a more useful purpose open than closed. Blackpool immediately jumped into action, training the troops by day and entertaining them by night, along with the many visitors who flocked to the West Coast resort.
Every evening, every ballroom in town was filled with servicemen of all ranks dancing with local girls or visitors, many of them making a conscious effort to forget what the future might hold. Many lasting friendships were formed, sometimes at the cost of missing and temporarily forgotten loved ones in their towns and villages. The cities’ ballroom bands found a winning entry with a whole new range of tunes and a change of pace for the dancers, south of the border on the way to Mexico AND deep purple giving way run Rabbit runAND let’s pass the wash on the Siegfried line AND we will meet again.
When the well-dressed and better-paid American troops arrived to sweep British girls off their feet, much to the intense disgust of the poorly-paid and scantily-clad British servicemen, a whole new range of dances arrived. mainly influenced by Glenn Miller and his band. those.
As male tower workers enlisted or were drafted, the Tower Company replaced many of them with women. Ballroom bands found their ranks too depleted to ever resume their former big band status. When Reginald Dixon joined, he was replaced by a female organist, the talented Ena Baga, sister of Florence De Jong, who filled in when her sister was ill. Ena’s signature tune was The smoke gets in your eyeswhich became a popular tune for servicemen as Reginald Dixon’s tune was for pre-war vacationers.
Concerts were held in the ballroom to raise money for “Salute to the Soldier Week” and “Weapons of War Week” and other similar campaigns. One such concert was given by the Halle Orchestra, conducted by Richard Tauber. Blackpool’s theaters featured all the big theatrical names as shows from London moved to the north of England to escape the capital’s crush.
Broadcasting from the tower was a regular feature, both the tower band and the organist were often heard on the radio in programs designed to entertain the forces at home and abroad. The sound of a Wurlitzer tower can be a reminder of better times and a morale booster to a sailor in the wastes of the North Atlantic or an aviator serving a bomber in the western desert. Near the end of the war Harold Grime, editor-in-chief of Blackpool Gazette and Herald, while serving as an officer found himself leading a unit of Indian soldiers on the stage of the Tower Ballroom during one of the concerts. As the packed audience rose and cheered, someone whispered to Mr. Grime, what would India’s national anthem be? Squeezing his forehead, Mr. Grime whispered in confusion behind the sky, there are about 150 of them. The gang leader was by no means lost. The gang struck the land of Hope and Glorywhich seemed to fit the bill well enough and all the Indian soldiers involved cheered and clapped.
With Europe occupied, people in Britain could begin to look ahead to the end of the war and plan a return to normality. The war years held a mixture of sadness and happiness for thousands as they lost loved ones in combat and a new and lasting romance in the ballroom. Many American servicemen married English brides, and quite a few returned home at the end of the war with broken hearts. Some of the ladies were with children
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 broadcast by the German station was listened to with amusement by many Britons, announced that the Luftwaffe had bombed Blackpool Tower. , destroying it completely. It was even said that the photo of the tower lying on the sand near the central pier was published in German newspapers. To the surprise of no one, the tower was seen the next morning in its usual place; one mind said our engineers must have been extremely busy during the night getting it back into position. With victory over Germany and then Japan, a slow return to normality began and tower staff members returned to familiar scenes and roles as they were demobilized. The lift service, reserved for official personnel during the war, was restored to the public in August 1946 and Walter Dutton, lift man for over 18 years, stated that he was delighted to see the public again. For six years he had led RAF radar technicians and civilian fire spotters; he had seen a German plane flying off to bomb Seed Street, when Blackpool suffered its only air raid of the war; and he looked down from the top of the tower on the fires as Liverpool burned after the bombing of the city and the ports of Merseyside.
When Reginald Dixon hung up his uniform and returned to claim his place at Wurlitzer, Ena Baga returned to London. She returned to Blackpool only to play the Odeon’s new console for a Sunday night concert, and on that occasion, told a local journalist that her time in Blackpool had made her famous in London; a common remark was “I heard you in Blackpool tower”. Blackpool were sorry to see Ena Baga leave. She kept in close contact with the many friends she made during a wartime stay in the city, telling them about her first television audition, which she found exciting.
Diving back into his work, Reginald Dixon returned to a round of broadcasting and recording; some of these discs sold more than 70,000 copies, earning him a gold disc from said record company. He was greatly amused when one afternoon a dear old lady, apparently unaware that she was talking to the organist, asked him what time they feed the animals? At 3.30 he said again with a smile. My dear, said the old woman, looking rather annoyed at the folly of having both shows on at the same time!
And among his fan mail, Reginald was delighted to have a letter from a 71-year-old George Boyce, who told him he was one of a dozen decorative plasterers who in 1898 and 1899 worked on the new hall of balloons. The havoc caused by soldiers’ boots on the floors of the balloon hall and other rooms plus the forced postponement of essential maintenance work during the war resulted in a series of repairs when peace returned. The ballroom was closed, but was redecorated and the opportunity was taken to make a number of changes to the general arrangement of the tower buildings. The Menagerie and Aquarium were both expanded and the Oriental Lounge was redecorated and renovated.
The post-war years saw a period of austerity as Britain tried to repair the damage caused by five years of hostilities and rebuild its shattered economy. With almost all necessary supplies in short supply, progress was slow as Blackpool prepared for the holidaymakers who flocked to the town, happy to escape for a week or two from the restrictions of austerity and rationing. About 80,000 people regularly visited the tower during the high summer days. By 1952 the entire city had returned 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 rail lines were hopelessly congested at peak season. Some trains did not start until one or two o’clock in the morning, and the Tower Company was granted a special license which allowed it to remain open until the last moment when the crowds had gone home. Reginald Dixon regularly stayed at the organ until two in the morning entertaining travelers until the time their trains departed. Blackpool Tower had still survived the war and secured its place in the new post-war Blackpool.
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