Leslie John Robinson (b.1929): War and Memory

The theme of war and memory is present at the beginning of Leslie John Robinson’s memoir as he recalls traumatic military events from an early age. He recalls these events with such precision that it can be said that children around this time were not hidden away from such distressing situations. The Robinson family believed that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ (52). Therefore, Leslie’s memoir may have acted as an outlet for these traumatic memories he had supressed as a child, sharing his fears through his writing.

The Launch of H.M.S. Thetis in 1939 from Cammell Laird.

The earliest military event that Leslie recalls in the memoir is the Thetis disaster. Dedicating a whole chapter to this catastrophe suggests that this impacted on his life greatly. At such a young age, this may have been very distressing for Leslie, and he writes with an anxious tone throughout. He understands that ‘Thetis, named after the mother of Achilles of Greek mythology, was one of twenty two submarines of the T Class ordered between 1935 and 1937 to meet the growing threat of war’ (47). The knowledge that war was imminent can only be terribly frightening for such a young child, but Leslie writes with a worried confidence. One morning, on ‘Thursday, 1 June 1939 Thetis sailed from Cammell Lairds basin to the River Mersey’ carrying ‘five officers and forty- eight crew’ (47). After experiencing troubles, ‘Thetis swung round and quickly sank out of sight’. Leslie remembers that ‘twenty- five hours had elapsed since Thetis had dived’ (50) and that ‘there was an air of grief and distress in the area with people standing on doorsteps as if to share the feelings of those full of anxiety for their loved ones’ (50). Unfortunately, ‘ninety- nine men died and four survived’ (51) which is something that Leslie appears to dwell on during this chapter, suggesting that this painful atmosphere was difficult to absorb as a young man. Eventually, ‘Thetis was raised from the seabed on Sunday 3rd September 1939, the day that war was declared. She returned to Cammell Lairds and was commissioned in November 1940 as H.M.S Thunderbolt’ (51). It could be suggested that this trauma shaped Leslie’s view on the military as he writes with an element of pride towards those who tirelessly tried to save the men aboard the Thetis. Despite his mother’s disapproval, Leslie goes on to join the army, using this deplorable memory as a driving force for his work.

Cammell Laird Shipyard

In Re-Remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War (2000), Michael Roper notes the effect that recalling memories of war can have on individuals later in life. Roper states that ‘there is a structure to unconscious processes and that their particular forms can be made manifest through the analysis of later memories’ (Roper, 2000, 201). This explains how ‘earlier mental conflicts’ such as Leslie’s recollection of the Thetis disaster, are ‘visible in later accounts’ (201), linking Leslie’s traumatic memories with his military career and desire to serve the country despite the disapproval of his family.

Merseyside Bomb Damage, 1940.

Leslie goes on to dedicate two chapters to his experience of World War II as a young child. He explains that shortly after the Thetis disaster, ‘signs of war were beginning to appear’ and that himself and his family ‘were issued with gas masks and a barrage balloon crew moved in to Mersey Park’ (52). As the ‘dreaded holocaust’ (52) approached, Leslie writes with an anxious tone as his family moved into a home with an air raid shelter in order to be safe during black- out periods. He explains that ‘may children had been evacuated to North Wales in readiness for the Nazi onslaught, Merseyside being a prime target, but as the weeks went by very little happened’ (63). Leslie writes with a sense of anger here as he understands ‘most people were lulled into a false sense of security as they were to find out to their cost in the moments ahead’ (53). This exposes a new outlook on the memory of war as it is impossible not to absorb the emotions of fear and anxiety through Leslie’s narrative and the eyes of a child. As residents were left uninformed ‘many people developed a couldn’t care less attitude even after the first bombs had fallen on Birkenhead’ and Leslie spent time ‘collecting anti- aircraft shrapnel from the streets’ (65). After moving house due to the anxiety of living in a high- rise building, ‘the Blitzkrieg started ‘and ‘during the last four days of August 1940 four hundred and forty- eight bombs attacked Merseyside’ (67). Leslie notes this memory so frankly that although there in a fearful tone, the air of innocence displays the vigor of the children living amongst the horror during this time. With pride Leslie writes that ‘even the might Lord Had- Haw couldn’t bring Merseysiders to their knees’ (73). This patriotic approach to war is something that may have influenced Leslie’s future career choice as his memories of World War II victory encourage him to continue serving the country proudly.


  • ‘Leslie John Robinson’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:671.
  • Robinson, Leslie John. ‘One Step at a Time’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection. 2:671.
  • Roper, Michael. Re- Remembering the Soldier Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narratives of the Great War. History Workshop Journal. No.50 (Autumn 2000). pp.181- 204.

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