On 14 August 1940, German planes bombed Weston-super-Mare. This is verifiable: it was in all the papers. Especially the Weston Mercury. Most Westonians were confident the raid had been a mistake. The Germans were a people famous for their efficiency, so why would they drop perfectly good bombs on Weston-super-Mare, when there was nothing in Weston that a bomb could destroy that could possibly be as valuable as the bomb that destroyed it? That would mean that every explosion would make a tiny dent in the German economy.
The Germans did return, however, and several times, which mystified everyone. Nevertheless I can’t help thinking that Westonians actually quite liked being bombed: it gave them a sense of significance that was otherwise lacking from their lives.
But that still leaves the question why would the Hun have bothered? Was it just Teutonic joie de vivre? Did the Luftwaffe pilots mistake the Weston seafront for the Western Front? I have heard it quite seriously put forward by older Westonians that it was done at the behest of William Joyce, the infamous ‘Lord Haw-Haw’, who was hanged as a traitor in 1946 by the British for making Nazi propaganda radio broadcasts to Britain during the war.
When I asked these amateur historians why a man of Irish descent who was born in Brooklyn would have such an animus against Weston that he would buttonhole Hitler on the matter, they fell silent.
I prefer to believe that it was because of a grudge held by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering on account of an unsavoury incident on Weston pier in the 1920s, probably involving Noël Coward and Terence Rattigan. My father’s explanation, however, makes the most sense: he said the Germans bombed Weston to show that they really do have a sense of humour.
Whatever the truth of the matter, two days after that first raid we had moved to a quaint little Somerset village called Brent Knoll. Dad had had quite enough of big bangs during his four years in the trenches in France, and since he was up to nothing in Weston that was vital to the war effort, he spent the day after the bombing driving around the country-side near Weston until he found a small farmhouse, owned by a Mr and Mrs Raffle, who agreed to take the Cleese family on as paying guests. I love the fact that he didn’t mess around. We were out of there! And it was typically smart of him to find a farm, where, at a time of strict rationing, an egg or a chicken or even a small pig could go missing without attracting too much attention.
Mother told me once that some Westonians privately criticised Dad for retreating so soon. They apparently felt it would have been more dignified to have waited a week or so before running away. I think this view misses the essential point of running away, which is to do it the moment the idea has occurred to you. Only an obsessional procrastinator would cry, ‘Let’s run for our lives, but not till Wednesday afternoon.’