(Interview by Polly Taylor and Harriet Bullock, October 2008.)
Mr Stevens started at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in September 1940. He told us how pupils did their best to support the war effort.
‘The school adopted a mine sweeper called the Lord Keith and there was a model of the ship in a glass case at the back of the assembly hall (now PA1). A ‘farthing fund’ was set up to buy comforts for the crew and there was competition between the forms as to how much was contributed.
House competitions were very popular. One was linked to the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign. Each house had a plot of land and we had to grow our own vegetables.’
Most pupils had fond memories of the Headmaster.
‘Assemblies were memorable because the Headmaster took pleasure in choosing different classical music to play at the end. This was played on wax cylinders. We thought this was wonderful. The Head, Mr Screeton was a very nice man, quiet, dignified and kind.’
Other memories, however, were less pleasant.
‘We had an art teacher whose husband was killed while on duty with the navy. We were messing around that day, not realising what had happened. She came in and we were severely reprimanded and given 500 lines, ‘Manners maketh man’. It was a lesson we never forgot.’
Hemel and surrounding areas were changed by the war.
‘Hemel Hempstead was very small at this time about 19,000 people. It was divided into 3 main districts, the main town, Boxmoor Village and Apsley. Some American troops from the air base at Bovingdon were billeted in the town. They wore a special type of boot that was much quieter than those worn by British troops. They rode about on huge Harley Davison motorcycles. There were a number of black troops amongst them; the first time that most Hemel people had seen a black person.
‘I remember seeing some of the Flying Fortresses after they returned to Bovingdon battered, full of holes. They were then covered with foam to stop them bursting into flame. Loss of life would have been great as there were 13 men in the crew. You could hear barges going up and down the canal all night carrying sand, coal, coke and anything else that was needed. They had a distinctive chugging sound. You could also sometimes hear bombs being dropped on London and on Luton where tanks were made at the Vauxhall plant and you could see the glow in the sky. The sky was lit up by search lights which criss-crossed the sky searching for enemy aircraft’.
Life on the Home Front presented some difficulties.
‘The blackout meant that no lights could be seen from your house. If you broke this rule the air raid warden would knock on your door and tell you put it out. If you used a torch you had to have 3 layers of tissue paper over it and car headlights also had to be covered. It was quite difficult to find your way around.
All the sign posts were taken down to confuse the enemy in case of invasion. It sometimes confused local people as well! The names of stations were covered up. You had to count the stations back from London to make sure you got off at the right place. However, the porters sometimes shouted out the name of the station which partly defeated the object!’
Despite such problems, Mr Steven’s memories of these years are very positive. Everyone pulled together and supported each other and he feels that the education he received was very good.
(Interview by Polly Taylor and Harriet Bullock, October 2008.)
Mrs Stevens first went to Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in September 1939 just as the war began.
‘The start of school was postponed for 3 weeks that year whilst the girls’ cycle sheds were made into an air raid shelter. Sticky tape was criss-crossed over the windows to prevent damage in case of a bomb blast. Parents were concerned that the school might be a target for bombing as the tower was painted white and stood out so it was painted grey. We had to carry a gas mask in a box and a box of rations in case we were kept at school for any length of time. Mine contained nuts, raisins and chocolate.
‘Paper was rationed and we had a rough book to do some of our work. We went through it with pencil first and then with ink. When it was full you had to take it to the school secretary who signed and stamped it before you could get another. If there was even a quarter page that was unused you had to take it back.
‘There were no after school activities because we had to get home before the blackout and air raids started.’
The number of pupils at the school increased due to the war. Many of these new children had suffered traumatic experiences and must have found it difficult to adjust to life in England.
‘There were many refugees from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia in the school. One girl had long hair, despite the school rule that hair should not touch the collar of your blouse. She was gently asked to wear it shorter but she said that her father, who had been left behind in Germany wanted her to have long hair. She was allowed to keep it long but wear it tied back in a bow. The staff were very understanding and sympathetic.’
Another refugee pupil, a boy from Poland irritated the French teacher by standing up, clicking his heels and bowing when she spoke to him. One day she snapped. ‘For goodness sake sit down boy’. She was immediately remorseful when she realised that this was his way of showing respect and said to the rest of the class, ‘If you had half the good manners that he has you would get on much better’. Many of these children remained in Britain after the war ended.
St Ignatius College, a Roman Catholic Boys’ School, was evacuated to Hemel Hempstead and had their lessons in our school. We did not see them during the day but did get to know some of them after school. They were billeted with local families and had their own teachers.’
Some of the staff were also badly affected by the war.
‘Our French teacher had friends in Paris and had lived there for a while. One day she said, ‘Would you take out a book, I’m sorry I can’t teach you today. The Germans have just entered Paris’. We had such feeling for her that we read in silence for 45 minutes.’
Home life also changed.
‘We had to be very careful with food because of rationing. We had a ‘pig club’ in our road. We saved vegetable peelings and other waste food that was used to fatten a pig. When the pig was killed everyone got a share of the meat. Our road had a group of people responsible for fire watching. My mother did it and managed to read the whole of ‘Gone With The Wind’ whilst doing it. The person on duty had a notebook, a stirrup pump, a bucket and a whistle. You signed the book to say that you had done your duty and transported the equipment to the next person on the rota. We did not have an air raid shelter as my mother was terrified of spiders. At first we sat in the hall on deck chairs but after a while put mattresses downstairs on the floor in the best room* and slept there. We could hear the bombers overhead. I sometimes woke up and saw my mother sitting on the end of the bed just watching. Parents had a terrific responsibility’.
Despite all the difficulties at school and at home Mrs Stevens feels that she had a happy childhood.
‘I particularly remember that each classroom had a painting in it from a particular era and this helped you to learn a lot about art. In spite of all the problems we had a very good education. We were taught well and learned a lot.’
*A room that was often better furnished than other rooms in the house and was used on special occasions.
(Interview by Lucy Hughes and Samantha Rees, October 2008.)
I came to Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in 1941. Living in Kings Langley I had to travel by bus and as petrol was in short supply it was powered by a contraption on the back. The fare to the Plough roundabout was 2d and that to Two Waters was 1d. If you got off at Two Waters and walked a penny was saved and then you could buy a currant bun from the bakers shop on the corner of Charles Street and Cotterells.
The girls wore uniforms of light navy blue gym slips, cream shantung silk blouses, black stockings and sensible lace up shoes. Silk blouses were later replaced by cotton blouses. Silk, which is a very strong, light fabric, was being used by the forces for parachutes etc. and also maps were printed onto squares to help men escape capture behind enemy lines if they were shot down.
Everyone wore the same length skirt. This was determined by kneeling on the floor. When the skirt met the floor it was the right length. Girls used to turn up their skirts on the sly but the senior mistress, Miss Dale (later Mrs Girton) took girls into her room and made them kneel on the floor and unroll the skirt until it touched the floor. We also wore felt hats which went out of shape when they got wet and this enabled us to make them a more fashionable shape. Some girls threw their hats into the river when they left school. A blazer was also worn with the same motto as today ‘Esse Quam Videri’ (To be, rather than appear). Pupils who were given detentions had to write an essay on the school motto. If you were late for school more than once you were given 50 lines. Each incidence of lateness merited an additional 50 lines. We had to write, ‘Punctuality is a form of courtesy and a most important business asset’.
The school secretary, Miss Carpenter, collected dinner money which was 6d a day. Meals were cooked in the kitchen next to the labs in the back corridor and eaten from long tables in the corridor. Each day of the week had a different meal (but no choice), but each week the meals were repeated: sausages on Monday, stew and rice on Thursday, fish on Friday. Food was rationed so school dinners were very helpful to mothers.
St Ignatius Boys School which had been evacuated to HHGS had lessons all day in school but for a term or two my class had assembly at 9 am and then had to walk to the Baptist church in Apsley (now the community Centre), have our lessons there and walk back for lunch.
I enjoyed my days at school. The friendly rivalry among the four houses generated academically and in sport and the good friends with whom we still keep in touch.
(Interview by Nick Tate, Freya Martin, Mr J Ross, 28th November 2011.)
These ladies attended Hemel Hempstead School during the Second World War.
When you first walked into the school today, did you find most things different?
Yvonne -Yes. I have to say it’s slightly shabbier which is probably not what you want to hear! And, somehow, much more encroaching – smaller, I suppose.
Gwyneth - The thing was – when we came to the school – there were about 600 pupils and now, I understand, there are a great deal more – about 1200- so things are bound to be very different.
What was it like to be at this school in the time of war?
Yvonne - Actually, it was very prestigious to come to this school. You had to pass the eleven plus examination to get in unless your parents paid for you. Most people were scholarship children. It was considered a very good school at the time and we were lucky to be here.
Gwyneth - It was quite difficult with the exam. I was the only one in six years to pass from the school that I went to and I was just so delighted to come – I don’t think I could have borne it if I hadn’t been able to get here. That’s because I enjoyed mixed school when I was younger and I didn’t really want to go to a girl’s only school. I wanted to learn languages and to come here.
Were there any teachers that you didn’t like?
There’s sure to be some, aren’t there, but on the whole, I stayed in contact with at least three of the teachers until they were well into their eighties. So, I liked them – or most of them!
Could you tell us when you joined the school and how old you were at that time?
Yvonne -We joined the school in 1943. We were eleven years old at the time.
So you stayed throughout the war years.
Gwyneth - Yes. So we did lessons down underneath the school where the bicycles were kept in amongst the sandbags when the raids were on.
How conscious were you, on a day to day basis of the dangers of bombing?
Yvonne - Very conscious. You could actually see from my bedroom window, the barrage balloons over Wembley so we were conscious that we were pretty close to the action although unlike the people in London we didn’t have bombing all the time.
We didn’t have many bombs here, did we?
Gwyneth - The junior school that I went to was Nash Mills School in Belswains Lane and the same junior school is still there and whilst we were at school there, we actually had bombs fall opposite the school. A pair of houses opposite were bombed and also the George pub, close to school. If the Germans were coming back from somewhere like Coventry and places like that, they would “ stick bomb” down the valley because at that time, this valley had the main canal, the main road – the A41 – and the railway lines all coming through and they would try to disrupt munitions and things coming from Birmingham through to the docks. And, of course, where I lived on Oliver Road, if you looked out of our front bedroom window, which was very high up, you could see the Flying Fortresses flying in and out of Bovingdon – one engine not running, bits off the tail plane and that sort of thing, so we were very conscious of it all of the time.
Were there any attacks on the school while you were there?
Yvonne - This a rather odd question because my sister, who was here before me, said that they were strafing but I’ve never after all this time had that confirmed so I really don’t know.
Gwyneth - The other thing too was that the Ovaltine factory– they made foods and hard rations – that sort of thing - and Dickinsons and the other factories along there – my mother used to pack mortar bombs there. They were trying to hit these factories so it was a very busy way – it was the main route through from the Midlands. There were no motorways or anything like that – it was all just fields in that direction.
[The History of Hemel Hempstead published in 1973 and edited by Susan Yaxley reports that 90 high explosive bombs fell in and around Hemel Hempstead. The first was on the Manor Estate in August 1940 and the last on Feldon in July 1944. Nine people were killed and 30 injured in these raids.]
What was rationing like?
Gwyneth - Pretty awful, but I don’t remember being any more hungry than most growing children are. We grew food on every available space. I still have allotments. Nothing was ever wasted.
Yvonne- I’ve been a vegetarian all my life not because of my thoughts at the time but because I didn’t like the taste of meat. So however many ounces of meat we had, my parents and my sister enjoyed mine and I had cheese.
Gwyneth - But it was very little. My family didn’t have eggs because before the war, my father had been a poultry farmer at Hunton Bridge and so, when we moved away from that – because the farm was closed down because of the war and they built Leavesden Aerodrome there – so when we moved to Hemel Hempstead, my father kept a few chickens in the garden so we always had chickens but, if you had chickens, you couldn’t get chicken meal for them. If you did have chickens, you had to give up your egg ration so you could have the egg ration or the food for the chickens – whichever you chose to do.
Yvonne - Sweets were rationed and we had the equivalent of one crunchy bar a week. I used to save mine up. The local shop would save me four crunchy bars at the end of the month and that was my sweets for the month.
Gwyneth - When I was at the other school I used to teach at, I put the sweets – which were a month’s ration – onto the table and it was about ten ounces I think and one of the boys said, “I eat that much before first break!” But that was a month’s ration to last.
How long were the school hours?
The same as they are now. Nine until 3.30. Quarter to nine –registration – until 3.30. We had 40 minute lessons. We had four lessons in the morning and three in the afternoon. And lots of homework!
Yvonne - Some of us used to cycle to school and we were not allowed to take our hats off. We were not allowed to ride up or down Charles Street or Cemetery Hill but we used to see who could get to the top without getting off which was pretty hard work! But that was part of the fun.
Gwyneth - And there was a lack of bikes because you couldn’t get anything like that – anything that was needed for the war effort – so they were all second-hand bikes. You couldn’t get brake blocks or things like that so that’s why you couldn’t ride down Charles Street or Cemetery Hill but two of the girls in our year got the book thrown at them once for riding two on a bike down Anchor Lane with no hats on! They were really in trouble!
Did you have to do fire drills, like lining up outside?
Well, we didn’t really have fire drills. But if the warning went, the air-raid warning, then you had to file down to the girls’ end, underneath the school because, being on a slope, the girls’ end had a big area underneath where there was a row of toilets and where we kept all the bikes and they put sand-bags to make alleyways there and you went into those areas and you still did lessons – not very successfully but you did try to do lessons down in the shelter! But it did become a bit like desert because the boys used to cut the sand-bags and the sand used to trickle out.
My understanding is that teachers were a reserved occupation – they were not called up - so did you find that, on the whole, the staff stayed put?
All the young men were gone. There were no young male teachers. There were some older men and there were young women teachers because at that stage – before the war and up to then – if you were a woman teacher, and you got married, you lost your job because you were taking a man’s job away if you were married. Your husband was supposed to keep you so you didn’t have a job. Really it was the war that led to women’s emancipation in a way because all the women did men’s work during the war and they’d never had that much freedom before. My aunt was a bus conductress and they did all sorts of jobs that the men had done before and now the women did. When the men came back, the women didn’t want to give up this freedom that they’d had. Before the war all the women teachers were maiden ladies and some of them came back into teaching having had to leave it because they were married. And they did come back into teaching because there weren’t enough men to do the jobs.
I believe that the Headmaster during the war – Mr Screeton – got quite cross because at least one member of staff did leave to join up.
I remember Mr Boucher being here although I don’t remember him going. They came back – later on – at the very end. They came back when we were in about Year 10 – Mr Boucher and Mr Bundy.
Do you think that the Head was very cross?
I couldn’t imagine him being very cross! He was a very good Headmaster. He was a very quiet man. The teachers nearly all wore gowns. I remember Miss Duncan used to come in – she was the French teacher – she’d put her books down and she’d lift her gown and she’d brush the chalk off the desk and then she’d perch on the edge. It’s funny the things you remember. Mr Attwood always used to clean the board with his eyes shut – he was a very elderly Maths teacher (or we thought he was!).
How many were in your class in those days?
Thirty. We became 30 because we had three evacuees come into the form that I was in so that swelled the numbers because so many children were bombed out in London and moved out this way. We had a three-bedroomed house but there were twenty of us in it at one stage because my mother’s family all came from the east end of London near the docks and they were all bombed out. And my mother was safe in the country so they all came out here and we managed to get them rooms with other people.
You mentioned evacuees. It must have been quite difficult for them since their experience was so different from yours?
Yvonne - My grandparents, who lived opposite, had two boys and we had a girl.*
Gwyneth - Our evacuees were all self-evacuated. At the time of the blitz my father sent my brother, my sister and I to his sister in Wales in Caernarvonshire because there were so many people in the house, my mother was nearly going crazy! So my grandmother and great-grandmother and all the aunts stayed here and we went to Wales and I went to school in Wales during one of the summers.
We had a little brown ration book with coupons in it. They used to cut out the coupons when you got your meat or they’d cross it off in indelible pencil so you couldn’t rub it out.
Did you have to carry these with you all the time?
You didn’t carry them to school but we did have to carry gas masks but not identity cards – not as children. Yvonne - When the air raid warning first came-at 11.00 on 3rd September 1939 – there was absolute panic of course and I lived in Heath Barn cottage** at the time and I was way over on the moor - in those days no-one worried if you were out by yourself and I can see my mother now, coming to the door, in an absolute panic but it was only a practice, warning people what to do.
Gwyneth - We used to listen carefully to the news which is why our generation is so good at geography – we used to get the atlas out and find the places they were talking about that had been bombed or whatever in this country or where the troops were advancing abroad. So children had a great interest in what was going on. We all felt a part of it. We didn’t feel that this was something grown-ups were doing and we weren’t.
Yvonne - And also, my father (Yvonne) was too young for the First World War and too old for the Second. This shows you what he did about this.
An extract from the Gazette newspaper:
“There was a rush to join. The first volunteer was Mr Arthur Chilman of Herbert Street. By the end of the week, several hundred had registered. In an editorial, the Gazette said the special job of volunteers would be to defeat the machinations of German parachutists who would be dropped from planes to try to capture strategic points. The temper of our volunteers is such that, if the parachutists try their wiles on this country, they will be manifestly be entitled to be called the suicide squad. The paper noted that the Germans had started their invasion of Holland on May 10th and warned everyone to be careful of Fifth Columnists.”
Yes. Spies. Dad joined the Home Guard. He later became an ARP ( Air Raid Precautions) Warden because he was a driver and needed to drive emergency ambulances.
Gwyneth - My father went into the Royal Welch Fusiliers because he was Welsh and they were then turned into the 1st Airborne so he became a parachutist and went to North Africa and Greece. He was under siege in Greece for about three months when the fighting against the Germans was going on there.
Did you see him at all during the war?
When they were training at first they used to come on leave but once they were posted abroad they didn’t come until the end of the war. So we didn’t see him for about four years. He was a stranger to us. In fact, my brother was born in the July before war started and he’d started school when my father came home. My father didn’t know him and he didn’t know my father. It was always difficult between the two of them because he hadn’t known him.
Would you rather have gone to school then or now?
Yvonne - I suppose you’d say the days when we came here because it was a fairly new school then and there weren’t so many pupils here.
Gwyneth - Also, people seemed to look after things a lot more then because you couldn’t get things. School uniform was incredibly difficult to get. We used to have to go to George Rolph which was a shop in the Old High Street – but clothing was on coupons and you only had so many coupons in a year so you had to wear shoes until they pinched something awful and you had to really look after the clothes that you had. Because my father was away and my mother had younger children, I had a grant from the Council towards my uniform because I’d won a scholarship and I couldn’t afford a uniform. But I still think I would rather have been at school then because I made friends then – we’ve been friends for seventy years nearly – and it was a smaller town. Everybody knew everybody in the town whereas now, you can stand shaking a tin at one of the supermarkets and you never see someone you know. I’d much rather have been then – we’ve lived through tremendously changing lives – we’ve gone through bi-planes and just-about pedal cars to this day and age which is an enormous speed to go through life. So awful things have happened but I don’t think I would have wished to live in any other time.
Nowadays in school we have a three-strike system for uniform. Did you have anything like that in your day
Yvonne - Towards the end of the war, you just couldn’t get uniform anyway. We were allowed to wear other things – I remember wearing a brown pleated skirt - but you can’t believe how little there was about really.
Gwyneth - Everything had worn out and you’d grown out of things and you just couldn’t get replacements. You learned to sew because you needed to. You learned to alter things, you unpicked jumpers to knit them up into something else. That’s something else I did when I was in wartime junior school – we used to knit scarves and sea-boots and all sorts of things. The War Office used to supply the wool for that and the last lesson of the afternoon, when I was at Junior School, we used to sit and knit and the Head teacher had the most wonderful reading voice and he used to read to us. He gave me my love of literature. He used to read ‘A Christmas Carol’ to us at Christmas time and ‘Great Expectations’ and all sorts of things. He gave me a great love of books which I have never lost.
Yvonne - We used to knit socks for the sailors and huge scarves using needles and thick wool.
What did you do about food at school?
Gwyneth - We used to sit in the corridor with tables down the middle and pass it along. There was nothing special about it. We only ever got chocolate pudding, rice pudding, semolina. When I went to school in Wales, we used to have to take two little bowls to school with us – little metal ones. In one you had potatoes and gravy and in the other you had jelly and blancmange. It was always the same, every day! But it was quite nice.
It’s sometimes said that the spirit of the community was enormously better in those days. Would you agree with that?
People helped one-another out. You used to do all sorts of things – spelling bees, beetle-drives and whist-drives – all sorts of things to raise money to go towards the war effort. Within the school, we adopted a ship called the ‘Lord Keith’. It was a minesweeper. And we used to save farthings for this. When I tell you that 2 ½ old pennies was one of a new penny and we used to save farthings which were a quarter of one of the old pennies. And you’d maybe bring in two pence and you collected them in form on a Monday and often it was read out that this form had sent in so many farthings. And we used to get bars of chocolate at Christmas to send to the ‘Lord Keith’ from our own rations. Our bit towards the men who were fighting for us.
Yvonne - *They were brothers and sister who came from Hackney, Greater London. They found it very difficult to settle and did not stay until the end of the war.
Yvonne - **Whilst living at Heath Barn Cottage my father, who was chauffeur to Colonel Brereton, was instructed to dig out an underground air raid shelter in the field behind the main house. This would have been somewhere above the now hard standing football area. I wonder if it still exists today? We used it regularly. Horribly claustrophobic!
(Interview by Sarah Kay and Amelia Wright, February 2009.)
‘My two sisters, Mary and Janet and I lived in Hemel Hempstead with our father and mother before the war began. My father, who was a local government officer, knew that war was imminent and our parents decided to evacuate us privately. They contacted a farm in Wales, where they had spent part of their honeymoon. Our mother took us to Wales as by this time my father was in the army. We went through London which was being heavily bombed at the time and I remember the red sky from the previous night’s raids. It must have been very frightening for our mother.’
Life on the farm was very different to that in Hemel Hempstead.
‘The farm was run by Mr and Mrs Jones, two of their sons, Fred and Ted and their daughter Jean plus another girl called Dil who was related, though we didn’t know how. It was a typical Welsh longhouse, starting with a scullery at one end, then a large kitchen and a parlour, rarely used, with an uncomfortable horsehair sofa. We three girls shared a bed in a room with Jean and Dil who also shared a bed. We were surprised that Dil and Jean slept in their underclothes. The lavatory was a two holer set in a little shed at the end of a brick path.
‘Fred would sometimes tease us and make us scream when he hid in the bushes and rose up holding some horns over his head. When he was milking the cows he usually had a row of cats waiting nearby because he would squirt milk into their open mouths.
‘The routine of the farm did not vary much. Mondays were market days when Mr and Mrs Jones dressed in special clothes and went to market in a pony and trap, taking things like eggs and mushrooms. There might be a pig in the back of the trap. If it was not a school day one of us was allowed to go. That was a real treat. Baking was done in the bake house at the back of the scullery. A fire was lit in the oven and when it was really hot the bread for the week went in followed by cakes and pastries. That was the day we had our bath as the bake house would be warm. The bath was a tin one that usually hung on the wall of the scullery. There was no electricity or gas.
‘Local people got their butter and cheese rations from the farm. We think we had more than people who lived in towns. Once Mrs Jones put a whole week’s ration of butter out for Fred and Ted and it all went on their tea time bread.’
School was also very different to George Street Primary School in Hemel Hempstead.
‘It was a 3 class village school. The head teacher taught my class. He was a gifted musician but certainly not a disciplinarian and chaos reined for much of the time. Mary was in the next class with a female teacher who was also a good singer and Janet was in the baby class. Every morning assembly went on for ages as Mr R played the piano, Miss P sang and we had lots of hymns. The age range in the top class was from 9 to 14. The bigger children, especially the boys, were allowed time off to help on the local farms. Lessons were haphazard. We had time off to collect sticks for wood for the school boiler. We sharp eyed children noticed that Mr R and Miss P seemed to disappear for quite lengthy periods in the woods.
‘We found it difficult to get to school in time, although we were rarely late, as we had a long walk over fields and down a lane. Our walk was complicated by the fact that we had to cross a ditch by a plank. Out little sister hated this part of the journey and we had to drag her over the plank kicking and screaming. Not a good start to the school day!
Home time was a problem too. The teacher was in the habit of playing a note on the piano and if you could guess what it was you could go. I sometimes had a lucky guess, but usually I was one of the last to go.’
Hazel was a law abiding child and found that the lack of discipline at the school made her nervous.
‘The school was undisciplined and one episode showed what could happen. One day Mr R decided that for PE the boys should run round the churchyard one way and the girls the other. It’s not hard to work out that the girls came back first and the boys stayed out of sight until rounded up by the furious teacher! There was another occasion when the teacher wanted to cane a boy but couldn’t reach him as he took refuge under the middle of a group of desks.’
Soon, however, Hazel was old enough to take the scholarship exam for the local grammar school. She walked to the local market town, took the exam and walked back again.
‘The local paper published the results. My name was not there so I was very upset and remember crying in the orchard. In fact, the results had gone to Hemel Hempstead and then chased my parents round the country until they arrived at the army base where my father was stationed. I had passed the exam; the only person ever to have passed from the village school.’
Life on the farm was idyllic in many ways and gave the 3 sisters a unique experience and many memories, some good and some less happy.
‘We did see our parents occasionally when my father had some leave. I knew that they had arrived because I could smell my mother’s perfume as she came up the stairs to our bedroom. When they came we often went to the local town (Welshpool) and the river Severn where our father fished and cooked the fish for lunch. They were happy memories.
However, I was mostly very unhappy, apart from missing my parents and our ‘settled life at home. I was a ‘square peg in a round hole’. I was a real bookworm and when our parents sent us a parcel it often contained a book for me. I instantly wanted to read it, but was discouraged by Mrs Jones.
I also know now that I spoke out of turn. One time when I should have shut up was after a parcel arrived from our parents. They sometimes sent us sweets as our father would swap his tobacco allowance for sweet coupons. Mrs Jones would let us choose one item then put the parcel away, but she would bring it out when relations called and give them lots of sweets. I would say that they were ours. Not a good idea!
‘When we did finally leave the farm 15 months later I was an extremely nervous and unhappy person. My sisters were not so affected as Mary loved life on the farm and Janet, although she was very young, was fortunate to be little and arouse the motherly instinct amongst those on the farm.
‘Strangely, the nearest Hazel came to enemy action during the war was when some bombs were dropped close to the farm. German bombers returning home over Wales after raids on Britain would sometimes jettison their bombs to lighten their load.
‘It was a Saturday night and there were suddenly three very loud bangs. We three girls were shaken in our bed and Mrs Jones got up and put us in the cupboard under the stairs. She called for Mr Jones to get up saying that Fred was in the village courting and Ted was on Home Guard duty and what would they do if the ricks caught fire! Mr Jones said he would not get up for any old Germans. Luckily the bombs did no damage as two fell in fields and one in the middle of the road so that when we went to chapel the next day we saw Fred guarding the hole!’
(Interview by Katie Towse, April 2012.)
I came to the school in 1935 and stayed until 1940. By the time I came they had just reached two forms of entry up to the 5th Year (Year 11). It was still fairly new but by then we had 4 Houses instead of 2 so it was growing. I was a scholarship girl. I think 3 pupils came to HHGS from my primary school – 2 boys and me. [Pat Smith has told us that the school was Two Waters and that he was one of the two boys.]
There wasn’t a rigid division between scholarship and fee-payers or between Class 1 and Class 1A but most of the scholarship pupils were in one form. There was no real streaming but you got the impression that one class was rather more intellectual than the other. It was just a feeling one got. We were the only mixed grammar school in the area – Berkhamsted, Watford and St Albans were all single sex. We drew people from a wide area. I knew people from Oxhey, Tring and Harpenden. Things were quite, quite different. There was just one building (the main block). The only room that is in the same place today is the Head’s study. The main assembly hall is now PA1 (dance studio), Domestic Science (Home Economics) was at the corner of the back corridor and the boys’ woodwork room was in the corresponding place at the other end. The art room is now full of computers! That’s where we did exams. The library was half of the front lower corridor. The fiction library was at the top of the stairs.
We all had to write for the Magpie (the school magazine) – for one homework every term you had to produce something. Then they were scrutinised and vetted and one per form was printed. On dear! What am I going to do? What am I going to write about? If you had done something special or been anywhere special you had something you could write about but otherwise it was not something we looked forward to. But it was done and everybody produced something.
At first the war had little effect on us except that we had to bring our gas masks. We had to practise going down to the air raid shelter. It was only later that they went down there for hours on end having lessons. We had one or two evacuees whilst I was there. In 1938 we had two Jewish boys who had managed to get out of Austria but they didn’t stay very long.
At home we had two young teachers billeted on us – 2 young Welsh girls. But some of the children they looked after went back after a couple of months and they went back with them. That was the Phoney War. I had no sense of fear because of the war, just maybe a bit worried on the day war was actually declared. My father was in the Territorial Army and he had been called up before war was declared. They’d been at their annual fortnight camp and he came home and had about 3 days to sort out his business and then he was off. That was the last we saw of him for 6 years. He went out to the Middle East in 1941. He came back on leave but by then I was away in the air force.
I left school at 16. There was virtually no Sixth form then. I had been destined for the Civil Service and the war was my saving grace as there were no exams for entry. I worked in the post office for a little while as I wasn’t quite old enough to join up and then joined the WAAF.
Most of the boys in my year joined up. By 1942 we were all 18. You saw them drifting around town in uniform. Three of the boys whose names are on the war memorial were in my year. Bob Duke and Con McGarry were in my form and Brian Slade was in the parallel form. He left school at the same time as me and within weeks I saw him walking round town in uniform. I thought how did he manage that? The story is that he got his father to sign the form (and thus was able to join up though under age). I met him in 1942 when we were both stationed in Norfolk. He was a serving pilot by then and half way through his tour of duty so he must have done 15-20 tours already. He was flying Wellingtons then.
(Interview by Zoe Wills, January 2009.)
‘It was a jolly good school, very small: I think about 250 of us. You either got here by passing a scholarship or you could pay (the fees were very low). I was a scholarship boy. It was a wonderful school. It was so new and the teachers were so enthusiastic. They were people you remember for the rest of your life.’
Tony remembers getting up to some schoolboy mischief.
‘I travelled to and from school by bus. The bus stop at Hemel was at the Plough (close to the present day magic roundabout). Nearby was a telephone kiosk and in those days there was no 999 number, but rather an emergency button. And what, of course, did boys do just before the bus came? One day it was my turn to press the button and the bus was late and the police came. I got home and didn’t say anything. The next day Mr Screeton (headmaster and a lovely, lovely man) called me into his office and read the riot act. He indicated the things that could have happened as a result of what we did an ambulance might have come when someone was dying 100 yards down the road, that sort of thing. And he said he would be writing to my father. So I got up at the crack of dawn and intercepted the letter. But it was such a nice letter and really called for an answer so I stuck it up again. My father wrote back and said, ‘Why didn’t you cane him?’ Mr Screeton had said that he would have to cane me next time. The cane was used very infrequently.
‘Another incident springs to mind. I had a great friend called Len Cruise who could be a real devil. There were swimming baths where the sports centre is now and the car park next to it was empty because you couldn’t get petrol. A custom grew up that if a German plane had been shot down that wasn’t too knocked about they used to drag the plane round the country and put it on display. People would pay 6 pence to go and have a look at it and the money would go to make another Spitfire. They had a Dornier or Heinkel bomber in the car park and Len and I saw that there was an oxygen cylinder that was loose, so we decided to nick it. It must have been small, otherwise I don’t know how we got it home. Three or four days later, Mr Taffy Evans, my German master, took me to one side and said, Fritz (the name I was given in German lessons), a certain Mr Whittle would like a word with you. He may be interested in something you have. Mr Whittle was the superintendent of the swimming baths. I had to go and say sorry. It was just a school boy prank and I was forgiven.’
Other incidents could have had a more serious outcome.
‘We used to have house matches on the playing fields and we were playing cricket. This would be summer time in 1940 and we heard a rat-tat-tat in the sky. My imagination tells me I saw a German bomber. There was no air raid warning or we would not have been out playing. We boys dashed for the toilets as it was the nearest place for cover. But our (boys) playground doubled up as tennis court in summer the girls, who had been playing tennis, were much nearer to our toilets and were already sheltering there so we boys were crowded out of our own toilets.’
Tony knew most of the ex-pupils who died in the war.
Bob High ‘One of the boys who died - Bob High - was 2 years ahead of me but we worked together before we joined up at Delrow House in Aldenham for the Sun Life Insurance Company. He joined up 9 months to a year before me. He joined the air force and he was killed in training. He had an accident in the air.’
Brian Slade ‘He was a year above me and I knew him very well. He left school without taking his matric* so he could get into the air force. He probably went in as an apprentice at the age of 15 or 16. He was a bright boy and a pushy lad so he got into the aircrew.
‘The first time I was on leave I came to Hemel Baths for a swim and lying on the grass was Brian in his swimming trunks. He introduced the girl with him as his wife. He must have been all of 19. Anyway, I went off and had a swim and then went to the changing room. He and I were both getting changed at the same time. In those days you wore your uniform all the time. I was getting into my ordinary seaman’s uniform and Brian, a year older than me was getting into his Flight Lieutenant’s uniform and he had got a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). He said, ‘You didn’t join that lot did you’? Why didn’t you join the air force?’ I wasn’t that brave or that foolish.’
Bob Duke ‘He was a lovely boy, very quiet; kept his head down. He had a racing bike we were all jealous of.’
Jack Colyer ‘He was a good sportsman.’
Most boys of Tony's age expected to leave school at 16 and join the armed forces.
‘I volunteered and joined at 17. This meant I got into the service of my choice, the Navy. I knew most of the boys whose names are on the school memorial - a lot of them were in the air force. On the outbreak of war, Mr Boucher, the PT master who later joined the RAF and was decorated, formed an Air Training Corps force at the school and almost all the boys over 14, including me, joined. I didn’t enjoy it, and once uniforms were to be issued I left and joined the nearest Sea Cadet unit in Watford. This was a great relief, as I felt sure that if the Air Force had tried to teach me to fly, the matter would have become so hopeless, Germany would be bound to win the war!
‘I was also a Boy Scout and did fire watching duties in the Kings Langley Road where I lived, and with Denis Hodgson, a fellow scout and also in my form at school, did weekend duties as wardens at the Phasels Wood Scout site. This followed the full time Warden joining the forces.’
Like many of his fellow pupils, Tony corresponded with a member of the crew of the Lord Keith.
‘The school adopted a ship called the Lord Keith. It was a Suffolk trawler, chosen, I believe, because Mr Screeton’s wife was a Suffolk lady. I used to write to a fellow called Jimmy who was a member of the crew. I can still see his writing now, it was long and thin and he couldn’t spell at all. With all the arrogance of a reasonably bright boy of 15 I sometimes felt it was a waste of time writing to a man who was only just literate, but later, after going to sea myself I realized what a hard time Jimmy and his shipmates must have had during those war years when I was just a school boy. War is a great leveller, bringing out the best and worst in mankind.’
Tony left Hemel Hempstead Grammar School at the age of 16 and volunteered to join the navy.
‘I went to every continent in the world except America. I didn’t really understand anything about life but I was so keen and wanted to see the world.
‘I joined the navy under the ‘Y’ scheme. That was a fast track to becoming an officer. For most of the time whilst at the training base, I was a class leader, even though I was only 17 because I was the only one in my group who had any education beyond the age of 14 and mine stopped at 16. Some of the men I was in charge of were 35.
‘Our instructor took me on one side one day and said, ‘Have you any connections with the navy or the sea?’ I said, ‘No’. He said, ‘Well, you know what they’re going to do with you; you’ll be a beach master’. So many young men he had instructed had been involved in invasions in North Africa and then Sicily and the Italian ones. The navy went in first, dropped those young midshipmen and they were the ones to get mown down. So, I thought about it. A chap I’d met on the train going down had decided to become a radio mechanic, and as I had the necessary qualifications (though only just)in maths and physics, I decided I would do the same. But I was pretty hopeless and failed the course after 2 months. So I went to sea as an ordinary seaman on a destroyer, mostly convoy work, steaming at the speed of the slowest ship.’
Some time later Tony was transferred back on shore.
‘I got taken off a ship because the Navy discovered that I had matriculated with distinctions in German, French and English. After D-day, they were taking so many prisoners they needed people to do interrogation of German prisoners of war (POWs. You didn’t need to be distinction level - you were reading the questions and they demanded a single word answer. Depending on the answers you got from an individual he would go through that door and presumably end up in a POW camp or through the other door to be interrogated by Intelligence.
Later, I was sent on a course to learn Japanese and eventually joined an aircraft carrier, but by the time we reached the Pacific and long before I was proficient in the alphabet, the atomic bomb was dropped and it was all over. When I’m talking to my grandchildren about their university careers, I tell them that the navy was my university, the University of Life. You saw the world and met so many new people.’
An incident that happened whilst he was home on leave is still a vivid memory.
‘A friend from the village (Kings Langley) was on leave at the same time and we were going to the Luxor or Princess cinema in Hemel Hempstead. When we got off the bus at the Plough there were a lot of people gathered round a man on a soap box. He was a member of the Communist Party and his theme was ‘Start a Second Front Now’ to help the Russians. The crowd was giving him a rough time and one man turned to us - we were the only people there in uniform - and said, ‘Where are you two off to?’ We said we were going to the cinema. He said, ‘Well, you’re not going to pay today and you’re not going to stay here and listen to this rubbish’ and he gave us a shilling each. Everyone was ever so patriotic.’
Tony was in Singapore a few days after it was liberated and the suffering he saw was a dreadful experience. His aircraft carrier then sailed to Australia where he was angered by the destruction of brand new planes that had been destined for Britain under the American ‘Lend-Lease Scheme’.
‘It was Christmas Day 1945 in Sydney and we took on board a host of brand new fighter aircraft and our Fleet Air Arm members would be armed with crow bars and would bash holes in the aircraft. We’d go 20 miles out of Sydney and ditch them in the sea. Florescent lights would come on the planes (the lights were there in case the planes had come down in the sea and the crew needed to be rescued). You could see these dots of lights all over the sea. For 4 months we ditched American made aircraft that were made under the Lend-Lease scheme and were brand new. Under the terms of the agreement they couldn’t be given back to the Americans or used in peacetime. We finally re-paid our war loan to the Americans in 2007.’
* matriculated: passed exams that were the equivalent to GCSEs
(Interview by Lucy Hughes and Samantha Rees, October 2008.)
I came to Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in September 1938 and was very happy there.
The first effect of the war was that Domestic Science lessons ended. In the year that I did this subject I learned to make potato cake, how to wash and iron my school apron and how to make soft soap from bits of leftovers. This last skill came in handy during the war.
On important feature of the school during the war years was the diversity of the pupils. This was noticeable in a quiet sleepy town like Hemel. Children came to Hemel Hempstead from all over the UK and from Europe. These European children were mostly Jewish. One or two came with their parents but some came by themselves. Their parents went to great lengths to help them escape. They didn’t want to talk about their experiences at first but opened up later and had earth shattering stories to tell. They were wonderful students. They began the school year not speaking English but learned very rapidly. It was a lesson to the English pupils.
There was an air-raid shelter in the school in the girls cycle shed which ran under the cloakrooms. The arches in the cycle shed were filled with sandbags and the area was divided into sections for classrooms, one for each form. When the air raid siren went pupils went the correct place in the shelter and were registered. We had to bring a stool and a tin of iron rations (my tin had barley sugar in it). We were not a bit scared. We did not think of the danger and it made a change from routine. The teachers must have felt terribly responsible. The shelter was not used often because most of the air raids were at night. Teaching carried on in the shelter. One English teacher was a Scot with a ringing voice who could be heard by all the other classes.
I remember one bright, blue February day we were playing house matches when two masters rushed out to warn us. A German plane was emptying its guns along the Boxmoor Valley and the children had to get to the shelter. The warning siren went quickly followed by the all clear. It was an incident I remember well.
Children brought money to contribute to a farthing fund. This began before the war but was then used to support a mine sweeper called the Lord Keith. Mr Screeton, the Headmaster announced one day that the sailors on the ship would like to receive letters from the pupils. I wrote to the engineer, Mr Everson, who had 3 older children. He wrote back wonderful informative letters. Some time later, in assembly the skipper of the ship came to thank the pupils and presented a cup that was to be awarded to a pupils who was a good all rounder rather someone who was best at something.
I remember one incident in which two girls came to school on roller skates. At the top of Cemetery Hill they were seen by Mr Screeton who was in his little beige motor car. During the assembly notices were given out and he said, ‘I’ve never thought to forbid journeying to school on the back of an elephant. The same applies to roller skate wheels’. Nothing more was said but the message was understood.
(Interview by Fay Breed and Lynda Abbott and letter from John Stanbridge, November 2011.)
I started at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in 1932. The school was started by a man who served as chairman on the education committee, James Dunbar. Mr Dunbar had 8 children, 4 who went to Berkhamsted School and 4 who went to Watford. He was so disgusted (that) he had to take his children out of the area that he pushed it (the opening of the new school) through. When they came to the question of what would it cost he came up with the revolutionary idea of making it co-ed.
Don’t forget, those were the days when women knew where their place was. Men went to the pub and women stayed at home. The girls we were with were overjoyed to come here (HHS) because the staff insisted that we all treated each other equal and with respect and it was a very happy school. What I feel is sad, is that those girls were happy to be equal to us and nowadays they want a little bit more say than the boys, don’t they? There were about equal numbers – slightly more girls than boys. We got on so very well together thanks to the staff insisting that we did. There were some pretty smart girls when I was there. One girl – Nora Baxter – I never could beat!
There were approximately 30 in a class in 6 rows of 6 with a blackboard at the front. Each day began with a little service and we all had our own personal hymn book that we had to carry at all times. It was supposed to cover all religions but the Roman Catholic people went to the library until after the first 10 minutes.
We were led up to what was the School Certificate (now GCSE) in those days. We studied for the exam – English, grammar, essays and so on. In the fifth form (Year 11) we did The Rape of the Lock, Silas Marner and Twelfth Night, also 2 science papers, history, geography, French and French oral plus two maths exams. I was no good at art so I gave up and did extra French. What made me quite annoyed was if you failed one subject in this exam you had to wait 12 months until you were allowed to take the whole lot again. Consequently they were always practising exams on us and we had one at the end of every term.
All the staff ran after-school activities. Mr Butcher did the stamp club. I used to love the science club. They used to get speakers in; people from the outside. Miss Duncan, she used to do the library. All the staff did something – athletics, hockey, football; you name it! There was a very strong debating society that I was never clever enough to belong to. We used to play games on Saturday and there was always a member of staff there to see we didn’t do anything wrong.
Another thing I think is missing today – (in those days) not one of the staff had a car. Good luck to the staff who have them (today) but all the staff walked to school or came by bike and if you were coming at the same time you rode or walked along side them and you talked about general subjects and got to know them much closer than is possible nowadays.
Mrs Gladys Gurton was the Senior Mistress. They gave her a dinner when she retired in November 1963. I said, “Mrs Gurton, I’ve known you a long time. It’s about time I had a kiss.” She said, “Come on, come on. I’ve waited years!” Now, I wonder how many people will ask their deputy head mistress for a kiss in 30 years time? But that was the sort of woman she was. I never once saw her cross or lose her temper yet her discipline was absolutely a hundred per cent. We were discussing this one day when we got together (a group of former students) and we decided that her only weapon was a look that was like a flame-thrower. She could sense when trouble was brewing and freeze you on the spot.
One interesting fact that we didn’t know about until sometime after the war when the conditions of the Official Secrets Act were partially lifted. Mr Robinson, the school’s second Head Master, had as a fluent German speaker, been stationed at Bletchley Park code breaking station. He used to fly into Bovingdon airport and as a RAF officer was doing liaison work with the Polish code breakers based in Felden. He told us that he formed a liking for this area and was delighted to apply for the Headship.
The younger members of the male staff were called to colours: Mr Doggett (Geography) served in the army in Yugoslavia, Mr Boucher (woodwork and PE) in the RAF, Mr Prior (French) in a French medical unit. I believe that he was a Quaker and Conscientious objector, unwilling to fight; but he acted so bravely that the French Government awarded him the Croix du Guerre. He was a lovely gentleman.
The girls also played their part in taking the many different roles of men who had been conscripted: nurses, land girls, factories and the three services (ATS, WRENS and WAAF). One of the latter was my cousin Molly Stanbridge (HHGS 1932-37) who joined the WAAF at the start of the war. She worked her way up the ranks, as a secretary and as a Flight Sergeant went to Paris with General Eisenhower when he moved his headquarters to the continent. She was posted to Field Marshall Montgomery’s headquarters in Germany. For this move she was ‘mentioned in dispatches’ being one of the first two British women to cross the Rhine. She was actually there and saw the German generals surrender the North German Armies to Field Marshall Montgomery.
I have vague memories of gallantry shown by a senior boy named Bert Halsey. His sister Gladys Halsey came back to the school to teach advanced mathematics. As Mrs Hughes she became Senior Mistress. Bert Halsey was a Royal Artillery pilot who used to fly a small spotter plane to direct the firing of big guns. It was reported that on one occasion he saw the Americans begin a bombing run that would have dropped their load on British and Canadian troops below. The local paper said that he flew across their flight path firing red flares in the sky, thus preventing a disaster. Bobby Bowers, RAF navigator was very good at athletics but was a little so-and-so. If there was any trouble he was involved. He got taken prisoner of war by the Japs. When he was released - I’ve never forgot - one of my other friends who had a car drove him up to see me. At that moment I was coming out of the front door with a mouse in a mouse trap. He obviously forgot himself for a minute and said, as I threw it away, “You mustn’t do that. It’s protein.” I thought that was very sad.
My brother-in-law, John Finch, was one of the original pupils. He went to France with the Watford Territorials, an *ack-ack regiment. They were guarding Le Havre when France was overrun by the Germans. They moved away to St Malo and evacuated from there. Then he went to North Africa and finished the war in Italy. When I got married to his sister he was sorry he couldn’t come to the wedding. The night before the wedding who should arrive? They’d given him special leave. That was in 1945.
Another interesting thing happened but I can’t prove it. I heard a strange story from Dunlop’s younger brother about his brother-in-law who was a Spitfire pilot. He was flying back from France when he got shot down over the Channel. He was on the wireless to base telling them what had happened and that he was slowly sinking and he couldn’t get his canopy open. The girl on the other end said, “Are you the Ian Dunlop that was at Hemel Grammar School?” He said he was and she said that she knew him,” You get that canopy open and we will pick you up in a minute.” In 10 minutes they had him pinpointed. But he could not remember what the girl’s name was.
It was a very happy school and I could really say they were the happiest days of my life.
* Matric – this refers to matriculation, the equivalent of GCSE exams today.
* Ack-ack – Anti-aircraft fire.
[John farmed St Agnell’s farm in partnership with his father – SG Stanbridge and son.]
When I left school I went straight into farming and that caused all sorts of problems. Everyone said I was a fool. It was a waste because I’d got *matric. When the war came along none of my friends held it against me that I was in a reserved occupation but their mothers did. Their little boys had gone away and I hadn’t. ** Arthur Gilkes was a sergeant major in the guards and I told him what was happening. He said, “Forget about it. This country’s done if we haven’t got food.” That was seconded. We had a Welsh school teacher billeted on us. She had a Welsh husband who used to come and visit her and he said the same thing only this country’s lost without food AND coal.
We had 2 Land Girls working for us after 2 years, Phyllis Griffiths and Pat Adderley. Very, very good they were. What I could never understand – you can picture the old-fashioned, grumpy farm labourers – and they got on so well together. I put it down to the girls had got enough sense that when the old boys offered advice that’s what they were doing, not finding fault with them and in the end they became quite proud of each other. The girls did all the dirty jobs because they were the less physical jobs. These old boys, (the farm labourers) if they could help them, they would.
When the war started it was immediately directed that in all houses with private gardens and gardeners, and there were a number of large houses with gardens in those days, the gardeners had to do 4 days’ work on farms. It was the worst labour we had. They thought they were superior to us country bumpkins. The next thing they brought in was a compulsory order to grow certain acreage of potatoes but we hadn’t got the labour to pick them so the order went out from the government that all schools had to give school boys a fortnight off for potato picking. It was quite alright until one boy threw a potato at another and then it was quite interesting stopping potato fights. “One boy a boy, two boys half a boy and three boys no boy at all”. But they were cheerful and happy!
Another thing. They brought in a regulation that army camps in the area had to send a certain percentage of their men to work on the farm. Well, if you had the same two men all week you paid their money to the army but if you had different men each day on their day off they could keep their money which was more popular. One day we had a very cocky PE instructor who tried to impress our land girls with the speed of his work. Our two girls soon had him on his knees. He found out he had muscles on that day that he didn’t know he had. We were very proud of our land girls that day.
We also had German prisoners of war. They were absolutely superb. Of course, they’d all been screened so there were no Nazis amongst them and they all came from farming backgrounds. I remember one winter – I was in charge of a hedging gang. They were used to obeying orders; whatever you told them to do they did it and they didn’t try to keep the job going on to avoid new tasks. They got on with the job and finished it. There was no trouble between the girls and them. But the thing they missed was children. If anybody came into the fields with children, they played with them. Another thing – I didn’t do German at school but I could talk to them. There were so many anglicised words that we could hold conversations. I remember one old boy. He had a big white beard – we used to call him Father Christmas. I had a little argument with him one day and he said, “Let’s agree to differ. I only know what Hitler’s told me and you only know what Churchill’s told you.” How can you answer that argument? Mr Healey, one of our farm labourers and our hay and grain rick builder, was a local church warden, and one of the Germans was very religious; they used to work on the ricks together singing hymns, one in English and one in German. When the war finished a lot of them (the German POWs)stayed here and married English girls.
When the war started there was a big searchlight near where we lived. This three acre site was off Holtsmere End Lane. It had machine gun posts, a guard house, kitchens, mess hall, dormitories all surrounding the searchlight. This site was originally manned by the Royal Engineers from the end of July 1939. After about a year the men were replaced by the ATS (women) with the exception of the man who ran the electric dynamo. On nights when they were not looking for German planes, they used to aim the searchlight vertically up. This combined with other units were a kind of signpost system for our bomber planes that were based in Lincolnshire. When the German raids became less frequent it was closed down and the buildings used as a German prisoner hostel.
The Germans were sent to different farms depending on where they were needed. They didn’t try to escape though there was no one guarding them on the farm. We used to give them all an extra ration of tea to keep them going and when I was hedging I used to put a bag of potatoes in the estate car and we cooked them in a fire .If you have never tasted potatoes roasted in the fire ashes you have never tasted potatoes. They were smashing. The bloke on the farm next to me was Brocks’ firework factory and we used to have some big bonfire nights after the war and cook potatoes in the ashes. Lovely.
One amusing thing that happened with Brocks was that they used to make mortar flares for the army. These had to be thrown into the air up to fifteen hundred feet before they lit up. They were suspended on SILK parachutes for five minutes. The land girls chased after the falling parachutes, regardless of the job they were doing; I was told that they were used to make underwear. I also had to join the chase as my mother and sister wanted their share.
Another regulation they brought in. We’ve always been pioneers on the farm and very well equipped. All farms had a yearly examination set by the War Agricultural Committee. You were classed in 3 grades, A, B and C. If you were C they thought you were no good at all and took your farm away and either farmed it themselves or gave it to a neighbouring farmer. B – You were not doing a bad job but you had to take advice. If they thought you were perfect, you were A which I’m pleased to say we were. On top of that there was a sort of semi-distinction for those they thought were doing very good and you were the subject of a visit. They used to visit on Sunday and pointed out what you were doing right and what you were doing wrong if they could find it.
The government told us what to grow. They concentrated on wheat and potatoes which meant all the general little farms had to plough up all their land to grow wheat.
During the 1940 Battle of Britain sheep had to be evacuated because they and their shepherds were in danger. They came from the Romney Marches and the Battle of Britain was being fought over their heads. All the farmers round here had to feed them until their time was up.
There was another hazard that we had to keep our eyes open for. This was when the RAF were practising low flying. It was called ‘hedge hopping’, and it really was! On one occasion I was cultivating a field with a hill on the side of a valley (Agnell’s Hill); I was at the top of the hill when a Spitfire flew through the valley. I saw the TOP surface of his wings.
* Matric – this refers to matriculation, the equivalent of GCSE exams today.
**Arthur Gilkes - He had been Head boy two years before I left. He had worked for Nat West Bank before the war. He was amongst the first British troops that freed Guernsey in 1945. He married a local girl and became a Bank manager in Guernsey.
We had a Welsh school teacher billeted on us and we became lifelong friends. We had two school teachers. One (the Welsh lady) did everything she possibly could to help – did the washing up, made the beds ready… The other thought she was in a paying hotel and did absolutely nothing. You can know which one we liked! The one we didn’t like left after about 18 months. The other one actually got married from the farm in the local registry office. They hadn’t really got any family left of their own. My parents were like grandma and granddad to them. We called them our Welsh branch.
A funny thing happened to her in the war. She did advanced Welsh at Bangor University. One day the South Wales Borderers were on the little village green on manoeuvres (in Cupid Green). As she cycled to school one of these men passed some very spicy remarks about this young lady. She had enough courage to keep on cycling straight up to them and speak to them in their own language. They didn’t expect in a little country village in Hertfordshire to find a perfect Welsh speaking girl.
Her husband, Norman, was a frequent visitor to the farm. He had been a miner and a communist, but realised that we all had to fight the evil of the Nazis. My father and he got on very well, agreeing that if they had exchanged upbringings they would have exchanged politics
Rationing affected us. If you hadn’t got potatoes and swedes in winter you would have been in trouble. Until myxomatosis, which was after the war, we killed quite a few rabbits. Rabbit was the main meat during the war. Nearly all our hay production in the war went to London to feed rabbits. Fruit was impossible which I found particularly painful. In 1943 I suffered from yellow jaundice which means you’re not supposed to eat starch and sugar. You’re supposed to live on fruit. I lived for about six months on apples. That’s all I could get. We had our own chickens and obviously when you visited people you had some eggs with you. In nearly all the houses the back garden was dug up for potatoes and swedes and they had rows of carrots, spring onions etc. in the front. A lot of them kept rabbits. The diet was monotonous and dull but offal was not rationed so you could get that. The village shop - and you had to keep your mouth shut about this - when they issued him with his cheese or his bacon ration they didn’t give him 50 times X they gave him 55 times X to cover for mistakes in cutting up. Well, if he had a little joint left over, the locals got treated. This was in Cupids Green where the Grove Hill estate is now.
I had 2 operations in 1943. Quite a few of the wards from the Great Ormond Street hospital were evacuated to Hemel. There were a hell of a lot more young nurses than there are now. The hospital was run on more or less military lines with a matron at the top - a real dragon. If there was any dust she would come along with her white gloves.
The West Herts Hospital was very big and covered the whole of the Dacorum area. An extension of it was the “Old Workhouse” and a considerable number of huts that were constructed in 1939. This was called a base hospital. It was situated at the top of the incline of Queensway and named St Pauls. Although under the same governors it was staffed mainly by Great Ormond Street sisters and the local Red Cross. It catered for the victims of the London Blitz After a bad night large convoys of buses arrived. They had their seats taken out to be replaced by racks to carry occupied stretchers. Unfortunately in 1940 the convoys were very frequent!
American base at Bovingdon
One thing that comes to mind is the relationship between American and British troops stationed locally. The only Americans that I knew of were stationed at Bovingdon airport. The issue was complicated because in practice, but not in theory, there were two separate armies here. One white, one black. What friction there was, was between these two groups.
There was a Black American transport company stationed at Bovingdon. These gained a reputation for the quick delivery of goods from point A to point B. This was especially true of the run between Boxmoor station and the airport. One ventured very carefully up Bovingdon Hill in those days as it was not unusual to be passed by a powerful and heavily ladened lorry at 50 plus MPH.
One natural resentment against the American troops was that they were paid a lot extra per day than all other allied troops. This enabled them to purchase from their well-stocked stores such items as nylons, cookies, fruit that was not available to the British public. These goods were given to the British girls with the odd bottle of ‘Jack Daniels’ for Dad, to keep him happy and not interfere too much!
This obviously caused resentment and in the phraseology of the time it was said that the Americans were cocky little devils who were “Overpaid, Oversexed and over here!”
This resentment would sometimes flare up during the regular dances that the local community held for entertainment. It was usual to see Military Police men from both the British and American armies stationed at the entrance to the hall. Any sign of trouble, and these men would enter the dance, separate the opponents and march them out of the way. It seemed to be so efficiently done that the dancing was barely affected.
The Black American troops, (those who came from the southern states where segregation was still enforced) liked being in England as it was the first time in their lives that they could speak to any white man that they met. They could also enter any cinema, theatre, bus, eating or amusement establishment without having to look for the offensive notice boards that said “White only” or “Black only”.
In London I remember getting on a crowded bus (standing room only) with Margaret (my wife). A black American sergeant stood up and insisted that the lady should have his seat. Margaret sat down between two black soldiers and we spent the rest of the journey talking where they had just been and what they hoped to see before the day was finished.
We were staying with Margaret’s Aunt Elcy, on this trip, and went to many tourist attractions and shows. We managed to go to the famous ‘Windmill Theatre’, with its nude tableaus. My mother wanted to know all about the trip when we got back to the farm and Margaret said that the ‘Windmill’ was “much ado about nothing’. “Oh Shakespeare”, said my Mother. We did not feel that we need correct her!
There was a very large pond next to the main Leverstock road opposite what was then Coxpond farm. This was used to check that they (the Americans) had correctly installed the waterproofing of their vehicles. Where the pond was about 4 feet deep they built a replica of a landing craft with its ramp down. This was to prepare them for landing on the D Day beaches into the sea. If the job had not been done correctly their engines stalled in the deep water. The unfortunate driver then had to dive into the depths of the pond and tie a tow rope to the front axle so that he could be winched out. They usually got a cheer from the amused audience.
There were a number of incidences that we were witness to but didn’t understand until the OSA was lifted after the war. At odd times, sealed trucks used to drive down our country lanes, stop and then dump two people and drive off. What we did not know at the time was that the Government had taken over the large and isolated Gorhambury House near St Albans. It was used to train the VERY brave men and women who were dropped in Europe to organise the Resistance units. The only equipment that they carried were a compass and Ordnance Survey maps without any names on them. What we were watching was an exercise where they were presumed to have landed in the wrong place. They had to work out where they were and get to the correct rendezvous point as quick as possible. Whilst doing this they had to be careful not to be caught by the patrolling instructors who were playing the part of Gestapo searchers.
There were over a thousand bombs dropped in Hemel Hempstead and the surrounding areas. Fortunately in open country but there were a few killed when their houses were destroyed. The Germans seemed to have two methods of dropping their bombs. One method was to drop the whole batch together. This made a very large noise but people used to say that the ones that you heard had missed. The second was to drop them one after another with a few seconds in between. I didn’t enjoy this method as each explosion seemed to get louder and nearer.
Another thought that comes to mind is how savage Income Tax was. The Chancellor had to think up two extra ways of raising the large amounts needed to finance a very expensive war. The first was called ‘Excess Profits Tax’ to stop people profiteering from the war as some did in the First Great War.
For the first time after a long and deep recession, factories etc. went onto full production. This meant that they were making larger profits and their workers, who were working overtime, both earned more. The authorities averaged the previous (about) five years earning and then took it away from what they were now earning. The obvious surplus now was called ‘excess profits’ and was taxed; this seemed slightly unfair. We did not have much spare cash for luxuries that were few and far between!
The other scheme was called ‘Post War Credits’. This was a form of compulsory savings. A percentage of what you earned was taken by the Government who promised to pay it back after the War. The Government was so great in debt after the war that it could not pay back these ‘loans’ immediately. This was countered by creating a minimum age before you could claim what was owing to you (round about 60). This meant that people, such as my wife who were very young earners having to wait about 40 years before they received their repayment.
I joined the Hemel Hempstead Home Guard. It wasn’t “Dad’s Army”. We used to have to parade Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 until 9 and Sundays from 9 until 1. We also used to do one night a week on night guard and various manoeuvres with the regular army. That was another interesting thing as far as I’m concerned. There were a lot of troops in the area. All around here until 1944 was a training area and you can imagine what the boys in the regular army thought of the Home Guard. We were below the Boy Scouts and a lot of other things. Just before D-Day they brought the 51st Highland Division home from Italy to re-equip and bring their numbers up to strength. They, for some unknown reason the cream of the British army treated us as equals. I’ve a very soft spot for the Gordon Highlanders. They told me something I’ve never forgot. If it comes to street fighting always volunteer to go first. They’re always waiting for the second man!
There were only 20 years between the wars and a lot of our members who were only 17/18 when the first war ended were still only about 40. They were the ones with breasts full of medal ribbons. We had some pretty brave men amongst us whereas they’d (training the regular soldiers) got nothing. That was pretty difficult for our Home Guard officers.
Another step was when Russia came into the war. The local communists nearly joined en bloc. They had been holding a lot of parades and meetings against the war in London until that day. One of the members of our Home Guard, Sergeant Weller, became a communist local councillor. I believe that he was the only one in Hemel’s history.
We were well very equipped towards the end. We had Canadian Brownings which had a .300 inches diameter. This sometimes caused problems as the standard Lee Enfield rifle, used by the regular army, was .303 calibres. If a member of the Home Guard got some ‘surplus’ ammunition from a friend in the Army, it could cause problems.
We were called the Local Defence Force and Churchill re-named it the Home Guard. A very clever move that was and not only that, they took it further. They made us a section of the British Army and our officers were given full commissions. We were allowed to wear the Herts badge on our caps and that’s when morale went up tremendously.
After the parade, especially on Sundays (was interesting). At 5 minutes to one you had to obey orders, speak when you were spoken to, stand to attention. One o’ clock – dismiss. One minute later, “Come on George. Meet you in the Saracen’s Head.” Most of them (the officers) could do that; one or two couldn’t. One I didn’t like was a local headmaster. When he dismissed us he just turned into a headmaster and treated us like little boys.
Another thing we did without knowing what we were doing at the time and it was really too much for us. Just before D-Day we had to patrol the railway lines because they were bringing all the material from the north down to the south coast. We had to pay particular attention to the bridges. We did it for about 3 weeks and then they decided they’d got all the materials down here and we couldn’t stand the pace. Not only were we doing all these hours, we were working 60 hours a week.
The ARP (Air Raid Protection wardens), quite justifiably, didn’t like it that they’d been serving since about 1937 whereas overnight we became the headlines in the paper. But it wasn’t long after that we cooperated with them very well. We took over a lot of their patrols (like) seeing that street lights were put out and they took over our “gas course.” They had a special room in the Churchill Swimming Pool that you had to go through and half way you had to put your finger between the rubber mask and your face. This meant that the gas was not going through the mask and you were breathing neat gas. This was to prove to you that the gas masks worked. The ARP gave a series of lectures on the various gasses and how to combat them. This was useful as they had been doing it since 1937.
I’ve never forgot. We were going down Cemmaes Court Road one day and we had a pretty tough chap, he was a Canadian working in England. We went to one house where the upstairs window was fully open and the lights were on. We told him (the house owner) to put the lights out. He had a lot of very rude words to say to us. He wasn’t going to be told what to do by overgrown boy scouts and if he wanted to take the risk he would. Well. This Canadian brought his watch out of his pocket and said, “You have 30 seconds and we’re going to shoot it out.”
Further Home Guard reminiscences: We had a rather roguish farm horseman who had served in France in the First World War (he used to say “I went abroad once, the buggers shot at me!). He carried pieces of shrapnel in his arm until he died. We allowed him to shoot rabbits and pigeons on the farm; he fed his large family very well throughout the war on this non rationed meat supply. He may sometimes have forgotten the boundaries of our farm and strayed a little further afield! A true countryman. He was now a member of the Home Guard. On one manoeuvre against regular army we had a senior Army officer explaining to us the lie of the land and where the attack would come from. Our Mr Brinklow who was very learned about the local birdlife and hedgerow plants kept saying “No it won’t!”. Eventually the Army officer decided to call his bluff and said “Now Mr Brinklow will continue the lecture and tell us where the attack will come from”. He started off by saying “See that oak tree and the two pigeons flying out of it. Now look at that Holly tree and observe two blackbirds flying out this way”. He continued pointing down the distant hedge describing the birds flying out. He then said that there are some people creeping along the other side of the hedge and that the attack will come from there. When he was proved to be correct we thought that we country folk had scored one over the Regular officer!
One amusing incident, if you have a warped sense of humour. Our Home Guard, guard room was in what was a utility room of the ‘Old House Club’. A rifle was being unloaded when it accidently fired. The bullet went through the ceiling and through the centre of the table in the room above, between the caretaker and his wife who were eating their supper. I was not present, but soon heard about it!
In 1945 the government said anyone who had done 4 years in the Home Guard could have a medal, the Defence Medal, to commemorate it. But they didn’t send it; you had to apply for it. Now one of my friends in Hemel had been in the Territorial’s and had served in Syria first and the first defence of Tobruk and then he finished in the *Chindits behind the lines in Burma. He said they’ve had 6 years of my life. If they can’t send me a medal I’m not going to apply and I thought if he won’t, I’m not. Paul (my son) plays on the computer all the time and he found the Home Guard site. Well, he found out how you could get the medal and for my 90th birthday I got it. For 4 years work and I reckon, 5,000 hours of unpaid work I got this. After 66 years!
* The Chindits were a British India "Special Force" that served in Burma and India in 1943 and 1944 during World War II. They operated deep behind Japanese lines.
One unexpected happening of the war. My grandfather had an oak tree felled and cut into planks, that he wished his coffin was to be made of. The Government refused to let the undertakers use what was quality wood for coffins. He had to make do with a plywood coffin, whilst my father used the planks to make what is now my kitchen table!
I will now conclude by trying to remember an interview that I heard on my tractor wireless whilst cultivating a field in the early 1990s.
A senior Labour politician was asked, “What was the difference between the large Labour party victories of 1945 and 1997”.
He replied saying that you must remember that we had been fighting a war for six years when our lives depended on each other. This meant that you had learned to understand and tolerate other people’s points of view whilst fighting the evil of Fascism; whereas now it seems to have descended into a case of “Them and Us”. To me this summed up the difference between the war years and now.
We were surprisingly happy in those days because of the helpful and generally cooperative mood that we were all in the same boat. There were no strangers, and when you ventured into the town it was a pleasant trip and not the mad dash of today.
(Information sent by individual, November 2009.)
My family was evacuated from London, both parents were teachers. Mother, of French, whose school came to Hemel; Father, of Chemistry, at Hackney Tech. Institute, which was sent to Downham market and I went with him at age 9. From there I went first to King's Lynn Grammar School, then after the Germans invaded the Low Countries, way away to Highgate School in North Devon. In 1942 the school in its wisdom decided the blitz was over and with impeccable timing returned to North London to receive it's salutation of Buzz Bombs (V-1's).
From home on the Manor Estate Apsley it was a 10 minute walk across the fields to the train station, 45 minutes to Euston, 15 minutes on the underground to Archway, another 10 on the bus up Highgate Hill. So with that adding up to something over 90 minutes each way, the buzz bombs were a handy prompt to make an end to the London Odyssey. So I came to HHGS at age 12 and entered 2nd form. Right from the start it was a transforming experience. Not just because it was my first ever school with girls in it, but chiefly because of its teacher abilities far surpassing anything provided at my previous expensive private schools.
We had Mr Harrison for English, Taffy Evans for French (and German?), Quarrie for chemistry, Miss Dale for history, Shackley for physics. There was also geography and maths, can't remember who taught them. The kids were great, friendly and welcoming, and I was assigned a girlfriend first day. In the boy's playground we had "Kingy" and 'Jimmy Knacker", two great games, I wonder if they are still current. Assembly every morning started with the Lord's prayer, followed by a hymn, announcements, and then an inspirational device of the then Principal Screeton, playing a 78 rpm record of classical music. I can still remember a bunch of those pieces we learned.
The long wartime lunch layouts down the back corridor have been mentioned by others. I'll just add one more memory not so familiar, but nevertheless notorious. In a chemistry class on organic amines Mr Quarrie happened to inadvisedly mention the extraordinary vile odour of a substance called phenyl isocyanide, a reaction product of that group of chemicals being studied. Not long after class an incredibly foul smell seeped into that back corridor and wafted therefrom with revolting consequence sufficient to drive the entire school population out into the playing field. The culprits (not including me!!) were never identified.
(Information sent by individual, February 2011.)
Sari Marko-Thaler was a Jewish refugee who was a pupil at the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School from 1943 - 1946. She wrote this account in November 2010 with the help of a diary kept at the time. Sari now lives in Israel.
‘My parents, brother and I came to England from Belgium in August 1939. My married sister was already living there. It was the dreaded threat of a Nazi invasion that caused my parents, almost overnight, to leave two successful businesses in diamonds and chocolate only a few weeks before the outbreak of war.
‘My father was granted a work permit, and so could continue to work in the diamond business whose centre had moved from Antwerp to London. For over a year my parents, though considered ‘friendly aliens’ had to register daily at the nearest police station.
‘My mother was born homemaker and during out ‘nomadic’ life in England from 1039 to 1943 always managed to create a wonderfully warm and happy home for us. Since my father had left Belgium with only a small amount of money, we had to make do in many ways, such as using storage crates for night tables and eating and cooking utensils were bought at Woolworths. My mother, who had been spoilt with a cook and a maid, kept house and cooked and never complained. In fact, she said she actually preferred this way of life as it reminded her of life in the place of her birth, Denmark! My mother put her energy into finding ingenious ways of preparing food, trying hard with her limited English to follow the daily cooking hints given by radio personality Mabel -------
‘My brother, nine years my senior was discharged from the army due to illness.
‘My father’s family lived in Poland and only those who left for Palestine in the early thirties survived. The others were all murdered in ghettos and concentration camps.
‘For me it was quite traumatic to leave out home so suddenly - friends, dancing classes I loved, to leave most of my toys behind and be confronted with a totally unknown language.
‘I was 10 years old and had already experienced the restraints and the cold rigidity of school life in Belgium. What joy it was then, to attend my first school in England! A village type of school in the small town of Littlehampton, Sussex. Not knowing a word of English, I was nonetheless placed in a class with children my own age. I was seated next to a girl, Joan Brynd (who I later discovered was the Headmaster’s daughter). She was to look after me. It took no time for us to become bosom friends - language or no language! Our delightful form mistress, Mrs Jenkins was extremely kind to me and made those difficult beginnings easy. How I enjoyed those small bottles of delicious milk (with a straw), we could buy for a farthing! At that school we were also issued with gas masks which from then on had to be carried where-ever we went.
‘Our stay in Littlehampton was cut short soon after the evacuation from Dunkirk, when an edict was issued that foreigners, be they aliens or allies (as we were) could no longer live on the coast. As it was a school holiday, I could not say goodbye and once again had to leave a friend I loved and this also, a school I had very quickly grown to love. We had no alternative but to move to London and to see for ourselves the wonderful heroism of milkmen who braved the blitz to deliver their goods, and of postmen who went from shelter to shelter to bring the mail and report news from the outside world.
‘In all I missed over 2 years schooling till in 1943 we moved to Kings Langley, Herts. It was then that my 24 year old sister took things into her own hands and went to see Mr Screaton, the Headmaster of the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School. Kind as he was, he must have taken pity on this young woman and her little refugee sister. He agreed to test me in English and Maths; and he did so personally. In the English test I did particularly well but the maths with its deviance from the decimal system was a real puzzle to me. Nevertheless, Mr Screaton decided to give me a chance in a form one year back from my age group. I am eternally grateful to him for the all too few precious years I was able to be in school.
‘In retrospect I think I ENJOYED my years in school too much. Forgetting that the purpose was not only fun but some education as well!! As a Jewish refugee child I felt absolutely no discrimination and have only the fondest memories of so many wonderful, dedicated teachers. The school was swollen in numbers by evacuee children and as a result a few forms did not have permanent classrooms but wandered about the school into any free room. This caused disruption because, accidently or on purpose, we did not always have the relevant books with us and it meant going to the locker room to get them.
‘Sometimes there were air raid warnings and we trooped down to the shelter. How happy we were when these coincided with a test! The shelter was crowded and, I think now, ill-prepared for longer stays.
‘The school had adopted a destroyer, ‘Lord Keith’, in 1940. There was a Farthings Fund and every week classes competed to raise the most money. The results were read out weekly at morning assembly. In January 1943 an officer serving on the ship came and talked to the school and presented a silver cup on which could be engraved the name of an outstanding boy or girl for the year. There was also a fund called ‘Wings for Victory’. This was a collection of silver paper all for the war effort.
‘A pen friend connection was begun between pupils at the HHGS and Russia organised by Miss Reading. I was asked to put the rather stilted and often incorrect English into a more coherent form and the letters were then sent to pen friends in England. I had such a friend in Leningrad and it was a most interesting, informative correspondence.
‘A funny incident: at assembly the Headmaster complained that pupils staying for school lunch were insulting the cooks by playing with their food and leaving it uneaten. We were asked to remember that sailors were risking their lives bringing it. ‘And we risk our lives eating it’, piped up a voice from within our ranks.
‘On 30th July 1943 (a Friday) the school broke up for the summer holidays. Could this late date be anything to do with the war? The new term began on 21st September.
‘In 1944 the school was so enlarged that the Methodist Hall in Apsley had to taken for classes. This caused havoc with timetables, as in all weather, rain or shine, the twenty minute walk had to be undertaken twice.
‘The 6th June 1944: D-Day. Pupils asked the Headmaster whether we could listen to the wireless in the assembly hall. We were told it was not working, but that we could go to Miss Dale’s room where there was a wireless. (Miss Dale was a History teacher and Vice Principal). There were a number of teachers there, all listening tensely and we joined them. It was an exciting day!
‘Here is a wonderful anecdote I heard from Miss Dale (Mrs Gurton). With great glee she told of a mother of a prospective pupils anxiously phoning Mr Screeton asking, ‘My daughter won’t have to sit with all those scholarship people, will she?’ ‘No, Madam,’ he retorted, ‘not unless she’s clever enough!’
‘In June 1944 three ATS girls came and talked to the assembled school. Films were shown, one of them being, ‘She Serves Abroad’. Pupils could ask questions.
‘On the 16th June 1944 there were several air-raid warnings and each time we filed into the shelter. We heard that a new weapon was being used, a pilotless aircraft or the ‘doodlebug’ as it came to be called.
From then on we spent many hours in the shelter. Parents were asked to give written permission if they wanted their children to leave for home at the end of the school day before the ‘all clear’ sounded.
Some of the staff served in the Civil Defence and came to school wearing uniforms.
‘On 23rd November1944 an American sergeant came and talked to the school about Thanksgiving Day. The records at assembly were ‘The Mayflower’ by McDowell and a part of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. A wonderful custom was the daily playing of a classical piece of music. Sometimes the records were played on request.
‘Classrooms were unheated, no matter how cold the winter due to shortage of fuel. We sometimes sat in our coats and gloves or mittens. Many of us suffered from severe chilblains.
‘In honour of VE Day, homework was cancelled for the rest of the week!! There was a two day public holiday.’
(Information sent by individual, November 2009.)
I did not arrive in Hemel Hempstead until Easter 1944, so missed all but one of the daytime air raids, which necessitated the use of the shelter at the girls’ end of the building. The former undercover cycle parking area had been made into a large surface shelter by the building of thick brick walls blocking the original open access. Inside, the space was divided into bays to accommodate forms by dividing bays piers with sandbags.
I presume some bench type seating but don’t remember exactly what we sat on. By then we habitually carted our gasmasks about with our satchels or cases. The original gasmask boxes, by then superseded by pouch like wallets with a carrying strap.
I may have missed the experience of lessons being conducted in the shelter, but, until I left years after the war ended, I did derive some personal benefit from the blast walls. A constant cause of annoyance to me was the staff’s tendency to harass me out of the cloakrooms before I was ready and lock the door. I developed a ploy to defy their authority. I would hide behind a coat on a peg, by crouching on the lockers. Undetected by the cursory inspection of the member of staff, I was locked in. When I was ready to leave, I climbed through the window onto the flat parapetted roof of the girls’ toilet block. From there it was an easy route to the ground, using the blast wall adjacent to the entrance to the block, by supporting my weight with a hand on either side of the narrow entrance. I hope that after 60 years, there is an amnesty for my crime. I was never caught!
The distribution of school milk in the Grammar School was more casual than the round the class handing out experienced at junior school. Unadvertised, two or three crates of bottles were left on the table next to the kitchen hatch, in the back corridor behind the stage. Very few found their way there to drink the milk. I can never remember more than three of us. Regularly, I knocked back three bottles, making one pint. A fine and nutritious supplement to the war time diet.
(Interview by Rory Tinker and Lynda Abbott, February 2012.)
Hemel was more of a rural farming place than anything. Most of the places round here were farm yards – Belswains Lane, the top of Bury Hill, Wood Lane End – they were all farms rather than industry and houses. I think that is the biggest change. And of course there were a lot of old buildings along Bury Road and Cotterells. There was one house that was quite comical. The footing had subsided because it was near the river and there was a lot of surface water and two houses had collapsed together and used to lean against each other.
The war affected us in lots of ways. Of course we had the blackout. What my granddad did was he made some wooden frames and covered them with black cloth and put them in the windows at night. And of course we used to tape the windows to stop the blast damage. Obviously, it was dark walking about at night as there were no lights at all. Even the buses had headlights with a sort of grill on the front so there was just a tiny light pointing downwards. You had to have good eyesight in them days!
I think the first thing I remember about the beginning of the war was the gas masks. They were in a little cardboard box with a string that went round your neck. When we were at school they were forever having practices. You had to hook them under your chin and then stretch them over your head. A great game, being boys, was if you breathed in deeply and breathed out quickly the air used to go out of the sides and made a weird noise. When we were doing the practices all you could hear was the noises coming out of them. They made the bottom of your chin sore and they smelled of rubber. If you were getting hot and sweating all the glass used to mist up and you wasn’t supposed to take them off and wipe the inside.
The main sirens were on top of the water works down Bath Street where the Civic Centre is now. I lived in Bury Hill so could hear them going quite loudly. I think they had ones in other parts of the town. They had them on a tripod and turned the handle which made the noise. Everybody was supposed to go to the shelters but nothing much happened at the beginning of the war as it was mainly to London that they (the bombers) were coming. After a few months people just carried on doing what they were doing apart from if you were at school when you had to go into the shelters.
I was at Bury Road School or Bury Mill End as it was called then and they had the shelters in part of the playground that backed onto the houses in Ashley Hill. They were dark and cold and we used to use them for playing more than actually as shelters. It was later in the war that we seemed to spend more time in the shelters when I was at Crabtree Lane (Corner Hall School). We did some of our lessons out there. The favourite one was you would either have to recite your times tables or do a spelling bee when the master would call your name and a word and you’d have to spell it. There was virtually total darkness down there. There was some light from paraffin lamps or candles but not much. Anyway, he would call out your name and he would know who was talking so you had to behave yourself!
My father decided at the beginning of the war he would build an air raid shelter in the garden and him and his brother dug a massive great hole. He built a wooden place inside and the intention was to cover it back over with soil but it used to flood so it was just a waste of time and they had to fill it all in again.
Bombs were dropped on Hemel. There was one in Belswains Lane where quite a few people lost their lives but the ones I remember mostly were dropped nearby. One was dropped in Ashley Road, about half way down. I don’t think anybody was killed but some were injured. On the same night another one was dropped on Bury Hill next to Lockers Cottage. The house was called The Orchard – it was a little way from the police station. The house was completely demolished. When we went there to see it afterwards the house was more or less completely in the bomb hole. I don’t think anyone was injured. The third one dropped in Gadebridge Park approximately where they have the underpass for the park and ride. The ground there is all shelved back and that is like it used to be for the bomb hole. I did hear there was another one dropped that same night on the Halsey Estate, just in the fields. They weren’t aiming at Hemel. After they (the Germans) had been in London the fighters would go up to intercept them and the bombers would off- load their bombs as quickly as they could so they could get more speed up and get away. Of course, Hemel was in just the right place for that.
When there was an air raid they said the safest place was under the stairs. We used to be bedded down there when there was an air raid and quite often stayed all night. The night they dropped the bombs we could hear them coming down. It was only a tiny pantry and we children squeezed in but not the adults. They seemed to think the children had to survive.
Towards the end of the war when they were sending the doodlebugs over you could see them even during the day. One day we were in the Churchill swimming pool when this doodlebug came over. Everyone watched it coming through the sky. You knew that as long as the engine was running you were safe. It was when the engine stopped everyone dived for cover. You used to see two or three coming down together with the flame coming out of the back.
My father was an ARP warden on call at night – he used to make sure all the lights were out and so on. When the bomb was dropped on Ashley Hill he went to have a look at it only to be told that one had dropped right opposite his home on Bury Hill. It cracked panes of glass in the house and brought down one of the bedroom ceilings.
We were involved as far as evacuees were concerned. We had Mrs South at the very beginning of the war. She had two daughters one my age and one a bit younger. When there wasn’t a great deal of bombing at the beginning of the war they went back to London and we had Mr and Mrs Hodges who then bought a house in Sunny Hill Road. They stayed in Hemel after the war. The third lot we had were Mr and Mrs Gay and their son, Charlie. The husband was in the forces. She also had a sister who was in the WAAFs so when they were on leave together there was quite a house full. We already had my father, mother, sister and me and it was only a three bedroom house. The evacuees had the front of the house - one bedroom and one living room and we had the back with 2 bedrooms. My sister had a small bedroom to herself and I used to sleep on the settee. We had to move all our furniture as they had their own and the settee went into the bedroom. I didn’t resent it. It was just what we did. We were all in the same boat. Charlie was 2 years younger than me and we used to go to school together. It was like having a brother. They were also billeting soldiers in Hemel. They billeted one on us but my Dad came home and said, “This is ridiculous.” My sister had to share a room with me and that wasn’t right so the soldier got moved out again. My mother and Mrs Gay shared the kitchen so it was always, “I want to cook mine!”
The hot water was done by a gas geyser over the bath and that scaled up being in a hard water area and eventually bust. You couldn’t get a repair during the war so we had to heat water up in a copper downstairs and carry it up in buckets. As you were only allowed so much water it didn’t make much difference. My grandma used to say, “Clean inside and out.” They used to give you syrup of figs and a bath once a week.
The American airmen from the base at Bovingdon used to come into town. There was trouble when the 8th Army, I think it was, came home on leave. The army chaps objected to the fact that the Americans were going out with their daughters and even some of their wives, I think. There were so many fights they used to ban the Americans from the town when they (the 8th Army) were on leave. The soldiers would give you chocolate and stuff and the girls would get silk stockings which you couldn’t normally get during the war. When the American got friendly with someone and they would invite them to tea they’d always bring tinned things we couldn’t get at the time. That was probably part of the reason they used to invite them – to get extra rations!
Our rations were very lean. People used to make it up by growing their own stuff. My father had an allotment just above the Midland Station at Addeyfield and my Granddad had one opposite the cemetery where the new row of houses is now. When I was 12-13 on my way home from school I used to call in the allotment and do the heavy digging for him. We used to grow all our own vegetables. It made up most of our diet. My Dad kept rabbits and chickens. Rabbit was our basic diet. We had 30 or 40 of them and it was my job to clean them out! We used to also get some wild rabbits off the gamekeepers. The only trouble was when you came to eat them you’d suddenly be chewing on lead shot. My Mum used to cook rabbit in every possible way – bake it, boil it, “pie it,” “pudding it.” I suppose we were lucky because we were out in the country. When the harvest was on in the summer holidays we used to go out to the fields to help. When they were cutting the corn they used to cut it from the outside and when they got nearly to the middle everyone used to stand around and wait for the rabbits to come out.
The first weekend in May they opened the swimming pool. There was no heating or anything. The first three that got into the pool used to have free passes for the rest of the year – up to the end of September. If you got one you used to go every day. It didn’t matter what the weather was. It was warmer sometimes in the water than what it was on the side.
That was our only real facility though there were two picture houses (cinemas), the Princess Theatre and The Luxor. The Princess Theatre had a Mickey Mouse Saturday club. It was more or less opposite where the Midland Road is now. The Luxor had a better class of film usually. We used to see all the old Will Hay films, Laurel and Hardy, Old Mother Riley and those sorts of things. The Princess had a gas engine at the back to make electricity to run it. It was cluncking away at the back. Some times on a Saturday morning you’d get in with a jam jar because they were trying to save glass and needed jars to make jam. So they let you in free if you had a jam jar.
My Dad was a bus driver during the war. I can remember that when you couldn’t get much fuel they used to have the old gas making machines on the back of the buses. They had a fire inside them – think of health and safety now! But they used to have this thing burning on the back of the bus and tow it along behind them. There was a tube linked to a sort of balloon on the roof which used to run the engine of the bus. One of the main routes was from Watford to Aylesbury and every now and again there was one down at Westbrook Hay. There used to be a pile of coal there. The bus would come along and stop and the conductor would get out and stoke the fire and then they’d go on to Tring and stoke it again. It was quite amazing how they got over the fact that that they didn’t have much fuel.
The war ended when I was 13 and I left school the following year and started a plumbers apprenticeship. I had worn short trousers at school and didn’t have a long pair when I started work. I got hassled so my mother bought me my first pair of long trousers.
No one seemed to be upset by the war. It happened and you had to get on with it. People moaned a bit but we kids used to enjoy it watching the aircraft come over and come back in the morning after night bombings.
(Interview by Fiona Wright, Edward Gardiner and Sarah Kay at the British Legion, Hemel Hempstead, November 2008.)
Hylda - I was a telephonist in the WAAF*. It was quite a big job. Actually, it was a very busy switchboard I was on, taking all these calls. It was very interesting. I didn’t go overseas because you had to have permission to go overseas and I was underage. My parents wouldn’t let me. My brother was out there and he said no. I chose the WAAFs because my brother Bill was in the RAF. He became a flight lieutenant in the end.
Fiona - How old were you?
Hylda - I was 18 when I went in. I volunteered because I knew I had to go in the forces or into munitions or something but I wanted to go in and get the job I wanted. I was in 3 camps really. I was in Harrogate for my telephonist training and then I was sent to Melksham in Wiltshire where I met my husband Maurice.
Maurice - Yes, she used to pass along this path with this other girl and I used to look out of the window with a pint mug and say, ‘Bring us back some tea Taffy’. And that’s how it all started.
Hylda - Yes, they called me Taffy because I was Welsh.
Fiona - But at that point you weren’t married?
Maurice - No, no! In fact it wasn’t until I was on the troopship to India (it used to take a month to get to India from Liverpool in those days) that I thought I might not see her again so I wrote to my mother and we got engaged by proxy.
Hylda - I had an engagement ring on and everyone said, ‘how did you manage to get engaged?’ Marvellous!
Maurice - We were married in 1947. I was still in uniform.
Hylda - We did the same square - what we call square bashing** for 6 weeks, the same as the men you see. We were in wooden billets. How many people were there in each one, Maurice, 8, 10?
Maurice - No. More than that; more like 30 - about 15 in each side - we had that in ours. You had it soft, didn’t you? You used to get pyjamas. We didn’t.
Hylda - We had sheets. You didn’t.
Maurice - No, we didn’t have sheets, we only had blankets.
Hylda - Everybody was so friendly and they’d do anything for anyone, it was great: the atmosphere was great there. You had some good times at the camp. We went to the cinema - it was good times really. Then the Americans came over and we had dances and invites when they let us out.
Maurice - You had a pass didn’t you?
Hylda - Yes, it’s to say you’d come in at a certain time.
Fiona - How long were you allowed out for?
Hylda - 23.59 at the latest and of course, if you were out and the police stopped you, you had to show your pass. The only time you’d get away with it was during an air raid. It was funny because on the RAF camp we were out in the country and of course there were no air-raid shelters out there because we weren’t expecting it. The first time I went into one, it was when I came up to London for the weekend from my camp and I got in an air-raid shelter. It was the first time, with all this going on and it was the first time I’d been in an air-raid shelter.
One thing you did learn was discipline though, which was good. You couldn’t, say, like they do at work now, take a ‘sicky’. If you were sick you had to go on sick parade.
Hylda - Women were plotting the course taken by planes, which was a responsible job. I mean, they all had responsible jobs but they all needed one another, and as I say I was on the switchboard.
Fiona - So where was the switchboard that you worked on?
Hylda - It was in the headquarters of the RAF in Melksham. Oh yes, it was a busy time and it was quite stressful. You could only do so long on there. One girl had a funny turn once. She pulled all the plugs out, and I had to go on and try and reconnect her. They were exciting times ?
Edward - When you were working there did you ever get anyone important ringing up? Anyone famous?
Hylda - If ever anyone rang you had to give a number. Like I’d say, ‘Melksham 321’ and then she’d say, ‘Is that the RAF camp?’ You’d say, ‘I’m sorry, it’s Melksham 321’. You didn’t dare say it was the RAF camp because everything was high security. We’d field all sorts of important calls from Fighter Command or something, or we’d put him through on a hotline, which means it wouldn’t go through any other kind of operator and we knew it was something important. And I had to ring the Royal Arthur once where Prince Philip was. We were threatened once that there would be an invasion. I was at the switchboard. We had to break all the machinery up and destroy everything. I thought, ‘What if I do that and it’s a false alarm?’ So I didn’t. It was a bit scary. Then it (the war) stopped. It had been going on for 6 years and everybody went mad. No-one could believe it, that the war was over. They were bashing frying pans, banging and shouting - it was great.
Fiona - So was that VE Day?
Hylda - That was the first one, because of course, it still carried on.*** The next day it was back to normal as if nothing had happened.
Edward - I was just looking at your medals. What are they for?
Hylda - I’ve got the Veteran’s Badge and the War Medal.
* WAAF – Women’s Auxiliary Air Force
** square bashing - marching and learning to follow orders.
*** The war in the Far East continued until VJ Day in August 1945.
Edward - Where would you like to begin?
Maurice - I joined up in 1942, and went for basic training. From there I went to Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire which was the Central Gunnery School for the RAF, where they were training pilots to fire their guns and hit things. We used to tow drogues behind a Lysander*. The drogue was like a long white sausage cloth thing. I used to have to go up there and control this drogue and you get Spitfires come at you from all sides and hit these things. I was there for about 6 months I think and then went to Melksham in Wiltshire, which is where I met my wife Hylda. I then got sent overseas and was in India for 2 years.
Hylda - We came under the same Training Command. As you know, there was bomber Command and Fighter Command and we were really under Training Command, because don’t forget all these people had to be trained. All the jobs needed training.
Maurice - We went out on the Nevassa, a lovely old cruise liner but we were 4 decks below the waterline, which wasn’t good because at night there were subs around so most of them slept on the deck - it was a bit dodgy.
Fiona - You slept on the deck the whole way to India?
Maurice - Yes, most nights we went up there. It was hot but it wasn’t so far to get in the water. Down below you had no chance at all.
Fiona - So you were an engineer basically?
Maurice - Yes, an electrician. Yes, I wanted to get in air crew like most of us do but I had one eye that was dodgy so I couldn’t.
Fiona - So what sort of jobs did you do?
Maurice - Servicing aeroplanes - Spitfires and later on Lancasters . In fact the last job we did I was at RAF Benson. That was the King’s Flight headquarters. By then I was fitting cameras in Lancasters for Town and Country Planning. I expect they did Hemel Hempstead. They were getting information for building the new estates so I expect Hemel was on the list.
Fiona - Where were you based in India?
Maurice - In Ambala. Every summer they used to send us up into the foothills of the Himalayas for 3 weeks because you got dehydrated on the plains. That was quite good - 3 weeks in the summer.
Sarah - What was the scariest thing that happened to you?
Maurice - The scariest thing I think was probably before I went. It would be the air raids. We lived in Stanmore then and we used to get air raids every night. The nearest bomb was only about a mile and a half away. It was quite frightening. In those days I was only about 15 or 16. I remember my dad put duckboards in the Anderson shelter when we first got it because it would always feel damp in there. One particular night, I’d say I was about 14 - it was 1939 / 40 - we went down the garden, all of us my sister and me, Mum and Dad, and he shone a torch in the shelter and saw the duckboards in there. He said okay get in and I jumped in and there was 2 foot of water in it. The things were floating on the top.
Also, when they rev up an engine on a Spitfire usually 3 or 4 airmen have to hang over the tailplane, otherwise it will come up because of the pressure. But I know of 2 cases where it took off with the airman on it - and this has happened, actually happened. I didn’t believe this ‘till yesterday when I read it in a book but it happened to a WAAF. A WAAF was holding on for some reason on this aircraft and it took off and it did a circuit of the airfield. It landed with her on.
Hylda - Women did good work ----
Maurice - Tradespeople, weren’t they? She was probably a rigger or something.
Maurice - One thing I’ll never forget when we were coming home. We were in the Red Sea I think and we were all lying about on the deck with nothing to do and this guy came up from the sick bay still in his pyjamas and stood on the rail and said something and jumped over the side. So it was ‘man overboard’, of course and they stopped the ship and lowered a life boat and went out for him and couldn’t find him. But as they lifted the boat out of the water these sharks were underneath, so he had no chance. When it was in the paper when we landed - we found a newspaper - they said he fell overboard. But he didn’t fall, he jumped overboard. I suppose they told his family that he fell.
Fiona - So why did he jump do you think?
Maurice - I think it’s meant to be called ‘sun-happy’ and he got too much and that’s why they had him in the sickbay - he was going a bit funny. The sun got very very hot and you couldn’t stand it, you know. I’ll never forget that.
Fiona - Did you stay in the same place once you were in India?
Maurice - I stayed in the same camp in Ambala. I was an electrician as I say, but I used to drive the fire tender as well - the fifteen hundredweight with a trailer on the back. One aircraft crashed into the back garden of some married quarters and pulled a fence down. We could do nothing for the pilot - he was dead - but they had to put this fire out and get the body out the aircraft - it was horrible.
Edward - I was just looking at your medals. What are they all for?
Maurice - That one is the 1939-40 Service Star, that was issued to people in that period of time. That is a Burma Star because I was 2 years in Southeast Asia Command, and that’s the War Medal, oh, and the Veterans Badge.
Sarah - What sort of food did you eat when you were in India?
Maurice - Very good food, actually. I could never complain about the food and one of my favourite things was supper time - cheese and potato pie. It was always the cheese and potato all mashed up with a nice crust on top and I used to love that. No, the food was excellent.
Fiona - You didn’t have Indian food then?
Maurice - No funnily enough we didn’t. No - we never had curry. All that time in India and we never had curry. We went out and bought curry, you know, if you wanted to have something different, but it was always just English food.
Fiona - Can you describe a typical day in India?
Maurice - A typical day? Well, we used to have bearers to look after us. A bearer would probably look after 7 men. He’d wake you in the morning with a cup of tea. There was the Punkah-wallah who used to sit there with a rope and pull the old fans backwards and forwards and if he stopped you threw a shoe at him because he’d dropped off to sleep. Then we’d go for breakfast and after that do whatever duties we were employed at. You’d finish early - just after lunch some days because it was too hot. We used to go down to the NAAFI**. Our camp was surrounded by a 6 foot monsoon ditch. When we came out of this NAAFI one day - we’d had a couple of drinks and were a bit tipsy - it started to rain so we were running like mad to get back to the camp and I fell in this monsoon ditch and it had 6 foot of water in it!
Hylda - What about the camels?
Maurice - Oh, that was another thing. Camels! There used to be a camel train come through once a week and I was, you know we all did it, on guard duty outside the main gate with a rifle and bayonet. All the bearers on the camels were fast asleep so they just turned the first one round and all the others would follow. Four hours later when this guy wakes up.
Fiona - How do you fall asleep on a camel?
Maurice - I don’t know, but they did! They used to curl up with their legs there and their head on the hump.
* Lysander - A British army aircraft used during the Second World War.
** - NAAFI - Navy, Army and Airforce Institute. The NAAFI provided recreational activities and sold goods to armed forces personnel and their families.
(Interview by Sophie Horwood, November 2008.)
I was aged seven the month that war broke out in 1939 and was just starting at George Street Junior School after spending two years in the infants school in Queen Street (now Queensway) opposite where the garage is now situated. In those days a farm house stood there. I lived with my parents in Herbert Street in the Old Town.
At first there were no air raid shelters but one was soon built in the field behind the school which I believe was owned by the adjacent iron foundry. In the meantime I remember that each teacher was allocated a number of streets and the idea was that if the sirens sounded then we would meet up with that teacher who would take us home. In those days mothers did not generally go out to work so would most likely be at home. However, it rarely happened if at all. We all carried gas masks.
In 1943 I moved to the senior school in Crabtree Lane. There were only two senior schools in the town at that time, Hemel Hempstead Grammar School (now The Hemel Hempstead School) and the secondary school in Crabtree Lane which was demolished some years ago. Although it was one building, Crabtree Lane was in effect two schools, the boys being upstairs and the girls downstairs. Both had their own teachers and separate facilities, including air raid shelters. These were partially underground and were located on the far side of the playgrounds from the school building. It was dark down there, but we were not really scared because we were all in it together. I seem to recall that there was some form of artificial lighting, probably paraffin lamps. We sat on benches facing each other. There was no heating. We spent many hours in the shelters, particularly when the V1 (Doodlebug) attacks started followed by the V2 rockets. I believe I am right in saying that we did some of our end of year exams in 1944 sitting in the shelters.
When rationing started in 1940 I wonder how our mothers were able to feed the family on such small supplies like 2 ounces of butter per week which is roughly the equivalent of just 85 grams. Rations were supplemented by gardens being dug up to grow vegetables and fruit or cultivating an allotment. This went hand in hand with the ‘make do and mend’ slogan. I had to persevere with patches on my clothing and darned socks, as was common during the war years and for a number of years after. Rationing did not completely end until 1954.
There was a British restaurant in Marlowes, located where Primark is now. Here you could get a meal for a reasonable price but it was not very nice so my wife Audrey tells me. Apparently, amongst other things, you could have ‘pom’ which was dried potato which as soon as you put gravy on it disintegrated into mush.
People were very friendly to each other. For instance, I remember being down the Old High Street one day with my mother when word went round that Woolworths had saucepans. We all rushed down there and joined the ever- lengthening queue which was the natural thing to do in those days. My mother then discovered she did not have enough money and a stranger behind her in the queue offered to lend her sufficient to buy a set.. I don’t know if people would do things like that today.
Hemel was quite rural with a population of about 20,000 and surrounded by villages. It was bombed but luckily most of the bombs landed in fields and only caused blast damage to nearby properties. The worst incident was in Belswains Lane, Nash Mills where a number of houses were destroyed and others damaged including the school and the old public house. A number of people were killed.
I remember when I first saw evacuees. My parents and I were returning from holidaying with my grandparents in Surrey a few days after the war had started and there were children playing on the moor opposite Boxmoor (now Hemel Hempstead) station. Perhaps many of them had never had the pleasure of playing in open fields before.
Air raid precautions included blackout blinds and putting gummed tape over window panes to avoid flying glass in the event of a bomb falling nearby. The few vehicles that were around had masks over their headlights. If we wanted to go out after dark, to visit the outside toilet, for instance, we had to use a shaded torch, such as one with a cloth covering it. Those toilets were unlit and could be scary in themselves with spiders and other creepy crawlies lurking in the corners! My wife’s family had an outside toilet at their cottage. Fortunately ours was indoors. ARP wardens patrolled the streets to ensure nobody violated the blackout regulations. Cars had masks over their headlights and bumpers painted white.
There was double summertime which culminated in the sun setting at 11 o’ clock. I remember we would stand in the garden and watch our bomber planes flying over Hemel town during the evening on the way to bomb German targets. Apart from that there was almost a constant sound of aircraft of one sort or another flying overhead during the day and night.<BR<
Many people like us didn’t have bathrooms. You either had to go to the public baths or use a tin bath in front of the fire. The public baths were on the corner of the appropriately named Bath Street and Marlowes and were a part of the water works where the Civic Centre is now. Apparently it cost a shilling (5p) to have a bath. People went once a week and had the regulation 5 inches of water. A lady would come with a spanner and turn off the hot water so you didn’t get more. I used a tin bath but my wife went to the public baths with her mother and sister.
The town was full of service personnel, men and women, all in the uniform of one or other of the services, and of all nationalities from Europe and the Commonwealth in particular. Also there was the Home Guard (Dad’s Army) of which my father was a member.
Then in 1941 American servicemen came to Hemel. They were stationed at Bovingdon where they took over the airfield from the RAF. I vividly recall the arrival of these men in strange uniforms and of Afro-American origin. It was the first time for many of us local people to see men who were not white. That contingent soon disappeared but the Americans remained at the airfield until well after the war ended. They were generally very friendly to us children and we would sometimes meet them coming out of pubs and ask for chewing gum, ‘Have you any gum, chum?’ One year we were invited by the Americans to a Christmas party at Bovingdon. They picked us up in town and transported us to the airfield and did us proud. We got lots of goodies, such as chocolate which was a real luxury as sweets were not available at all during the war years as I recall.
When the war ended there were several street parties with local children and evacuees all celebrating the victorious end of the war. The war in Europe ended on 8th May 1945 and against Japan on the 15th August that year. I was then 13 and started work the following year.
Hemel was a good place to be during the war. It was a relatively safe country town with fantastic community spirit. Everyone pulled together as I am sure they did throughout the whole country.
(Interview by Sophie Horwood and Zoe Burrell, June 2010.)
Winifred - I had a semi-detached house and there was a cupboard under the stairs. When the siren went the children sat in there with a rug and torches and a meccano set until the ‘all clear’ sounded. Eventually my husband and I dug a great big hole in the garden so we would have an underground shelter - that was before Anderson shelters came in. We would go down there with something to eat and drink and a torch.
Margaret - And our 6 week old cousin in a drawer! You couldn’t take a pram down there so we wrapped him up and put him in a drawer. Ken weighed only 3 pounds when he was born. The doctor brought a shoe box to the hospital and the nurses filled it with cotton wool and he was laid in the shoe box and put in the airing cupboard. There were 2 nuns who came to the hospital and volunteered to stay. They fed him every 3 hours night and day until he weighed 5 pounds and we could have him home. Our shelter had wonderful long benches made of earth and we had carpet from the stairs to sit on. It was really quite exciting. At night we would go the bedroom window and you could see the search lights in London. The whole sky was lit up and barrage balloons were going up. But we weren’t really frightened because it wasn’t close enough to affect us. It was an adventure. It was only in later life that you realise.
Winifred - But we all had to have a pail of water and a stirrup pump so if anything caught fire you could deal with it. It was a case of being prepared.
Margaret - It was a community thing. It was nice going to bed and getting up at one in the morning and having a picnic in the shelter!
Dennis- If you hadn’t got a garden you couldn’t have an Anderson shelter so we had an indoor Morrison shelter. It had huge metal sheeting over the top and wire netting at the sides. We only used it once because nobody would go in it. You had to crawl in and then you couldn’t move. We had it in the front room.
Also we had the brick shelters in the village built in the road - a complete brick building with a door at the end. They were public shelters built for the council houses and about 6 houses would share a shelter between them. But I can’t really remember a lot of people using them.
Another thing was the Home Guard round here. They dug trenches about 8 feet deep surrounded by sandbags and with slits for guns and corrugated roofs. They were great places for us children during the day, running in and out. The only thing was when it rained they got a whole load of water in the bottom. You can imagine one chap in there with a gun and a great big tank coming down the roads. Useless!
The blackout was difficult, especially in the bakery where you were working early in the morning and late at night. We had great big frames to put up against the window but it made it very hot. You couldn’t get any air We never ran out of flour but cake making materials were very hard to get. I don’t know what the fats and sugars were. One day we opened the oven and blue smoke was coming out like a car exhaust, so God knows what was in that!
Winifred - My husband was working with the waterworks and did home guard duty on the railway. They didn’t have guns or anything, only sticks, so how they were supposed to defend anything, I don’t know. We had a semi-detached house and they took our railings and the gates because they wanted metal to make munitions.
Margaret - Dennis’s mother used to make clothes out of rabbit skins. His 2 sisters had rabbit coats.
Dennis - We had hundreds of rabbits in our garden at one time. Father used to kill them and mother would skin them. She used to pin the skins out on a board and rub saltpetre into them until they were soft and then make coats.
Dennis - I recall the day that war broke out. There was a terrific bang. They fired a gun to notify that the war had started and my friend’s mother dropped dead on the spot. They had about 4 children. It was very tragic.
I went to school in Bovingdon and whenever the sirens went you had to run home because you all lived in the local area. So you were sitting in school hoping the siren would go. You didn’t rush back afterwards! You took your time. I remember one day a big German bomber came over and just as it got overhead we heard all these guns go. I think they just shot them off to frighten the people but we all dived under our desks.
We would stand in our garden and watch the fires in London. I remember one day, it was a nice summer’s day and there was a ‘bang, bang, bang’. There was a dog fight going on between the German bombers and the English fighters. They were bombing the car works in Luton but it looked as if it was just overhead.
There were a lot of army manoeuvres in the area. A convoy would come along and park up in the woods and us kids would go up there and have great fun. Sophie’s (Sophie is Winifred’s great granddaughter) dad found some ammunition. He was photographed for the Gazette. There was lots left lying around for years afterwards. Wartime was an exciting time to be a child. It was like an adventure - seeing troops coming through, spotting a new type of armoured car.
I think the worst part of the war for us was the flying bombs - the V1s. They had their own particular sound. You couldn’t mistake it. If the engine stopped they were coming down. You hoped they would keep going and going.
Bovingdon airfield was built in 1942-3 by the Americans. It didn’t attract bombs because the main bombing was over by then. The Americans used to crash the planes regularly - about one a week. One plane took off fully loaded, decided it couldn’t make it and it didn’t. It went through two fields, a herd of cows, through a wood and finished 50 yards from my friend’s house. Luckily nothing went off. They regularly went across the road but I can only ever remember two catching fire.
Margaret - Very important people came there just after the war. I was working as a governess in Box Lane and one day we had to take all the children in and close all the gates because a motorcade was coming down with ‘Winnie’ Churchill in it.
The whole village was full of these fantastic Americans. They would come into our shop and buy up English chocolate and English tea. They would clear the shelves. They were dressed in white and looked quite super. A lot of the local girls were after the USAF chaps. The USAF was banned from all the local pubs - there was a lot of trouble with the locals.
Dennis - They were service men in a war, likely to get killed any day - they wanted to go out and enjoy themselves. They had their own social clubs on the base. It was like a small town.
Squatters moved in when the Americans moved out. As rumours got round that there were huts going, people came from everywhere. Eventually the huts deteriorated and the council had to build proper houses. That’s why the population of Bovingdon went up. It was 500 during the war but it’s 7,000 now.
Winifred - I had a friend, a nurse at Hitchin hospital and children were brought from London and evacuated to the hospital. There was one little girl, Dorothy, who was sitting with her mother and sister when bombs dropped behind them and the mother was killed instantly. Both little girls were injured. One was taken to Cambridge hospital and the other to Hitchin. My friend asked me, when the little girl was well enough to leave the hospital, would I have her and I did. She was the same age as Margaret. They had 3-4 years together and then she went to her sister in Cambridge. Her father used to come one Sunday to see her and the other Sunday to her sister in Cambridge. One day he asked if I would consider taking his friend’s little boy. I said, ‘How old is he?’ and he said 8. His mother had died and his father ran a little pub. Every night at teatime this little boy had a rolled up blanket under his arm and he had to walk to the nearest underground station. They slept on the blankets in the station for the night because it was safer that way. In the morning he had to trudge back and go to school. Dorothy’s father felt it was very traumatic for an 8 year old. I said, ‘Yes, of course we shall have him.’ So I had him as well! In those days we had no washing machines or anything like that to help but it was a pleasure to have them. Dorothy was in hospital for a long time because she really was traumatised. The little boy wet the bed. He was sick every afternoon when he came back from school, but you see, he couldn’t help it. You coped with it. You had to. I was so pleased to have him.
The funniest part about it was his father had this little pub in London and we used to grow all our own vegetables and had our own chickens and everything and my husband was a great one for growing onions. This chappie came on Sunday and couldn’t believe it when he saw the onions.
Margaret - It was the first time those children had seen vegetables growing in a garden. They were London children who thought everything came off a ‘barra’.
Winifred- They built pre-fabricated schools for the evacuees. I remember we had a room at the back of the church and had about 24 children there. At lunchtime one of the staff had to take a pram to the centre of the town and bring back hot food for all the children. When there was a service - a funeral or something like that, we had to be silent all the way through it.
Margaret cried and cried when Dorothy left. It was so traumatic that when she was 12 years old, for a birthday present she had a new little sister! And yet her friend kicked up such a fuss when an evacuee came to their home that the mother had to give the evacuee up.
There were a lot of children that were better off coming because they came from poor homes and they were well looked after, but you see the authorities just went from door to door and there was no choice; you had to take them. The film ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ was typical. If you went to someone grumpy you were worse off. It really worked both ways. A lot of people thought they would be better off in London because they were protected by barrage balloons and things like that, but they were wrong. Lots of people were killed.
Dennis - Talking about evacuees, officials came round to every house to see how many rooms you’d got and how many evacuees you had to take in. My parents were bakers and were working all hours so the authorities said; well you can’t take children so you’ll have to take an adult. Some of the factories moved out of London to local areas but we had one of the chief architects billeted with us. Once a month he popped back down to Kent to see his wife. I think he was with a firm who were developing the bombed out areas. They had huts, temporary offices in the back of Church Lane House. He was a very nice gentleman.
(Interview by Samantha Rees, Alex Bourne, Rory Tinker and Matthew Henton, December 2010.)
I was born in Soho in London in 1920. At the age of 11 I won a scholarship to The Greycoat Hospital School in Westminster. It was a wonderful school. You matriculated at the age of 16 and my parents needed me to go to work but they believed that the only way out of poverty was by education so they scrimped and saved and my Dad worked all hours to keep me at school send me to college. When I left school I went to the City of London College where I did a very good secretarial training.
I got a good job with The British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Association. They were doing research on new developments in metallurgy and beginning to plan for the war. Some of their work became confidential. With the danger of the blitz they decided it would be safer if they moved out of London. Our Deputy Director lived in Box Lane in Boxmoor, Hemel Hempstead so we moved out to that area. We rented part of the Cooper Technical Bureau in Berkhampsted. I moved into digs in Hemel Hempstead and then I moved to Berkhamsted. I used to go home to London at the weekend. That carried on until after the war. Then I got married and came to live in Hemel.
My problem always was public transport. The last bus back to Hemel Hempstead from Berkhamsted was 1 hour before the last film finished. The cinema was where it is now at the Rex but the building was different and much nicer to look at than it is now. I used to have to leave the film half an hour early and that was my one constant complaint. When I went home to London I sometimes got the Greenline bus and sometimes the train if I had to work Saturdays. It was quite normal to work a 5 day week and you got called up if you didn’t. My job was in a reserved occupation so you kept to the rules.
The old part of Hemel was as it is now except the roads have been widened and the shops are different. Marlowes was quite different. There were little shops there. Many houses didn’t have bathrooms so once or twice a week I went to the public baths. You paid something like 3 pennies for a bath. The people in Boxmoor thought of themselves as ‘up the hill’ and the others were ‘down the hill’. The people in Box Lane looked down on Hemel people. It was funny to me as an outsider.
The walking we used to do! You have to realise that in London there was often a shortage of food and you couldn’t get tomatoes but in Berkhamsted, up on the common, there were greenhouses where they grew tomatoes. I used to walk up to the greenhouses and buy 20 pounds and carry them back - I was living at the opposite end of Berkhamsted then. I feel exhausted now at the thought, but you did it! I gave some to my future mother-in-law and took the rest home. The train from Euston came to Berkhamsted. They were steam trains, of course, so they weren’t very clean but they were reliable. I paid something like 2 shillings and 9 pence return.
We went on living as if there were no bombs, no air raids at all. You accepted all that. When you went out you never knew if you were going to get back again. I belonged to a girls’ club. There were a lot of young women but also men of course, who lived alone and when the blitz was on the club used to provide a bed for them and an evening meal and of course they had company and somehow you feel in less danger. We had a rota amongst ourselves - and we were all female - for fire watching. This was standing on the roof with a bucket of sand for the fire bombs. With high explosives you knew you didn’t stand a chance but with fires you threw on the sand and that did the job. I always did Saturday nights because I was only there at weekends. I had the chance to go out one night and asked a friend to swop with me and she did. They had a direct hit and she was blown to bits and I’ve felt guilty ever since. But my mother thanked God.
We had instructions to hide under a table when the bombs came down but I don’t know what good it would have done. Just a bit of wood wasn’t going to save you but you felt better. It’s funny, human nature. The worst bit was the silence. You heard a whistle at first as it was coming down and when it was silent you knew it was about to explode but you didn’t know which direction it was coming from. I didn’t go into the underground because we were lucky and had a basement in our house but I saw bunk beds on the platform pressed up against the wall so there was still room for the passengers to go by. One night a fire bomb was dropped at the end of our road and the fire brigade wanted us out just in case. That was the only time we went to a communal shelter.
When we had our first air raid siren on the day war was declared - it was a practice warning. We all queued up to go to the shelter in Golden Square, off Regent Street. The man behind me couldn’t keep his hands to himself. I can remember that more than anything. I think he thought, ‘This is my last chance.’
We helped refugees - I’m Jewish by the way. We put them up in our home and gave them hospitality. I got a travel scholarship before the war. I wouldn’t go to Germany because Hitler was there so I got permission to go to German speaking Switzerland. I had 3 wonderful months there. One friend I made there came to stay with us and the war came and she couldn’t get back. She stayed with us through the war. We knew about the concentration camps. You hear people in Britain say that they didn’t know what was going on but I did and if I knew, so did other people and the media must have known. Silly people like me used to feel so guilty because there was nothing we could do to get them out or rescue them. All we could do was give hospitality to those who got out. Most refugees arrived just before the war but some escaped from concentration camps. They must have had help but it was all very secret. We none of us knew who was doing what. Houses were a problem. They weren’t building during the war. But there were jobs because of the war effort. I can’t think of anyone who was capable of work and couldn’t get a job. Britain was very good and people weren’t turned away whether they were illegal or not. The general public weren’t prejudiced. We were all fighting the enemy together.
I never considered leaving Britain but I had relatives who went to America. An aunt of mine was terrified of the Germans coming here and wangled some little phials of poison so if the Nazis came and took her, she planned to take it. My mother took a different line. She said if they’re going to try to kill me I’ll do my best to take at least one of them with me. She was determined not to make it easy for them. Dad took a philosophical line. He joined the Home Guard because he was too old to join up. He loved it because it took him back to the First World War and he was a good sniper. And he liked the comradeship. They had shooting matches with rifles. As far was we were concerned, it was the boys having fun - but they were very necessary.
My husband was mentioned in dispatches. When the war broke out he was on the Maginot Line in France. The Germans were in occupation there but he got out. We didn’t know if he was dead or alive. He was hidden by the French in Normandy for 2 months and then 5 of them (soldiers) got a boat and rowed across the Channel. When they landed in Portsmouth they were arrested as fifth columnists and put in prison! But they got out quickly when it was realised who they were. We had no idea what was happening and then he turned up one day and that was lovely.
He was then flown in to Burma and that wasn’t very nice. When I said to him years later I felt guilty about the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he said, ‘Don’t ever regret it. We were living from day to day and were in the jungle being hunted like animals. We couldn’t have survived very long. Those bombs saved our lives by ending the war.’ I’ve never forgotten that and that’s why I’m passing it onto you. There are always 2 sides to everything. He went through hell for 2 years in the jungle not expecting to live but that was a part of his life he couldn’t talk about. He was a decent, good man and I think he must have killed some people to save his own life and he was ashamed of it, though he didn’t regret it because it was war time and it was his life against the Japanese. But he wasn’t happy about it. I can tell you, when we first got married I woke up one night and his hands were round my throat in his sleep. I shook him awake and he was horrified and it never happened again. He was having a nightmare about the war and I never teased him about it because he was so upset. I don’t like to think of the people who suffered and died during that war being forgotten.
(Information sent by individual, June 2009.)
When war broke out on 3rd September 1939 I was five years old. I was born and lived in Hemel Hempstead with my parents and three-year-old brother Michael. My father was in the Territorial Army then joined the Home Guard whose Headquarters was in a building in Heath Lane cemetery. He was issued with a rifle which was left in the house when he was at work at John Dickinson’s in Apsley. In 1942 he was conscripted into the Royal Air Force.
Within a very short time our flower garden had been dug up and vegetables and small fruit bushes planted so that we always had plenty of fresh food despite the meagre allowance we had after ration books were introduced in January 1940. Rationing finally ended in 1954. As my mother had been a cook at Heath Brow School she managed what little food we did have very well.
My grandmother came to live with us and used to go to local hedgerows to supplement our diet and bring home crab apples and anything else edible including stinging nettles which were boiled and eaten. We also had a pet duck so had a regular supply of eggs. My grandmother was a seamstress and would go to local "rummage" sales and buy old clothing to wash and redesign for the family and neighbours. She would also buy old knitted garments to unpick and re-knit so we were quite well-dressed children for that time. Clothing coupons had also been introduced and we were saving ours for a cousin's wedding.
I remember collecting rose hips and taking them to the Ministry of Food Office in the High Street and was paid two shillings and sixpence for a bag full. These were used to make rose-hip syrup which was distributed to babies. Orange juice and cod liver oil and malt was also obtainable to supplement babies' diet as fresh fruits were unobtainable during the war.
One day a train travelling to Northampton with evacuees from London was halted at Boxmoor Station when the siren went and a lot of people got off to look for accommodation in the area because it was considered to be a safe haven. Our evacuee was a 4-year-old boy from Hackney who lived with us for over two years.
There was a fear that we would be bombed and I remember everybody in the road went to see a stirrup pump demonstration so we would know what to do should an incendiary bomb fall nearby. Somehow we felt safe as army barracks were built and occupied just 500 yards from our house. One of the neighbours went to great trouble to build an Anderson shelter in their garden but as we didn't have a cupboard under the stairs or a garden shelter we all sat under the dining room table when the siren went. Our windows were criss-crossed with strips of brown sticky paper and blackout curtains were made for each window. Bicycle and car head lamps were readjusted to reduce the beam of light and all road signs were taken down and iron railings taken from front gardens to be melted down for making weapons. As petrol or diesel fuel became unavailable buses were fitted with a device which enabled them to run on a gas mixture. This fuel was held in a container which was attached to the rear of the bus.
I went to Corner Hall Infants School then on to Boxmoor Junior School and remember a neighbour collecting a classmate to tell her that her father had been killed in action.
I was at the Boxmoor school when an enemy aircraft flew low over the area firing randomly. From that school I passed the scholarship for Hemel Hempstead Grammar School and my parents were given a long list of required uniform that could only be purchased from Rolph's, a rather expensive shop in the High Street.
I was far from academic but loved the House Match afternoons and the gym lessons with the climbing frame and ropes. During the Domestic Science lessons we would cook with powdered milk and eggs and sew with miniature pieces of cloth where we were all taught to sew a "run and fell" seam. All of these lessons could be interrupted by the siren when we would have to go to what was the cycle sheds and the lowest part of the building to wait for the "all clear".
(Information sent by individual, June 2009.)
Geoff arrived at Little Gaddesden School which was of a similar style but larger and much smarter than Great Gaddesden’s and, as it turned out, much better at teaching children! The headmaster, Dr. Vicars Bell, was an excellent teacher who took a great delight in educating the youngsters and kept his staff in good order and discipline to ensure success in the process.
Not long after starting at his new school in 1939, the war also started and, with overcrowding due to the presence of evacuees from London, education became a very hit-or-miss affair. New buildings were constructed to cater for feeding the much larger number of pupils and some of the education took place in a large wooden building nearby which had previously been used as the village hall. Indeed so many pupils arrived for tuition that it became impossible to cater for the numbers which were restricted by building size and the number of teachers. At this point, schooling became restricted to half days thus totalling 2 days per week - a severe restriction on Geoff’s education at that time. When more teachers became available, this restriction was removed again and both the village hall and the school itself became crowded with classes of children hard at work for the whole of the day, impossible in, what was, a relatively small school.
The next change at school was the introduction of farming and agriculture to ‘help the war effort’ as it was then described. Gardening on quite a large scale for a school was introduced and pupils were given tasks appropriate to growing vegetables and fruit of various types. More exciting was the introduction of animals such as rabbits and pigs, especially the latter! To feed the pigs it was necessary to circulate the village twice a week with a very large and heavy trolley to collect all the available waste food from the local population. This took a considerable amount of time which, of course, was much more fun as it was no longer spent on education! Geoff can recall the advent of pigs in a much more pleasant way because they were killed off at Christmas-time and their very rare - in those days - and pleasant-tasting meat distributed to parents for their Christmas dinners. The rabbits and chicken eggs were mainly employed to feed pupils and staff in the canteen, as I recall.
On one occasion, Geoff remembers a friend of the same Christian name (Geoff), or perhaps ‘acquaintance’ might be a better term, who, working on the garden when he approached, passed him a carrot, complete with leaves, which had been partly eaten, without comment. What happened was that he must have seen the headmaster on his way because it was he who instantly confronted Geoff, told him off for stealing carrots and would accept no explanation whatsoever! Geoff was so upset by this unjust accusation that he ran away across the field to the pigsties and hid behind them for quite a long time before eventually re-emerging.
During the war a huge mass of wooden huts was built in a field adjacent to the local village of St Margaret’s which was situated up on the hill above Great Gaddesden. It was known locally as ‘The Evacuee Camp’. This was constructed to house a huge number of evacuees from London and other cities out in the country and away from the threat of German bombs being dropped during the war. It was also a London County Council school. Geoff had very little to do with this establishment and only a vague knowledge of its origins and usage. He did know, however, as did everyone else in the vicinity, that there were an enormous number of children in the camp who were regularly marched around the area in large groups. As far as he was concerned, the primary attraction of the camp was its internal cinema which was available, free of charge, to local citizens. Geoff made good use of this attraction and saw many popular and good quality films over a period of several years whilst it continued. Needless to say, there was nothing shown which might lead the youngsters viewing it into trouble!
One of the most noticeable features of the war as far as Geoff was concerned was the supply of food. Of course, rationing was in force and severely restricted your shopping but this feature was especially relevant to town-dwellers who could not grow their own food. Out in the country with a large garden and a great deal of manual effort, it was possible to grow a huge variety of foodstuffs and produce magnificent meals all the year round. The main restriction, as far as Geoff’s family was concerned, was meat - and that became very rare at times.
However, there were ways around that too. At the start of the war, Geoff’s family attempted to catch and then keep wild rabbits in hutches but this proved impossible as they did not survive in captivity. So tame rabbits were purchased and these survived very well on scrap and wild food. They were then very good to eat and tasty indeed. Then there were the wild rabbits and Geoff was taught by his father to make and set wire noose traps for them around the countryside, the most difficult part being the right place to set them. In the appropriate position, they could easily catch several rabbits in a couple of days - and the family would enjoy them no end! Then there were the deer. Not so many of these about and much more difficult to catch. Geoff and his father used multi-strand cable hoops set into gaps in the hedges at the right height and waited, sometimes for a very long time, for a catch. On the few occasions when this happened, there was far too much meat for the family so they, and their friends and neighbours, ate very well indeed for a few days! Birds came into it too. Pigeons and ducks, for example, were shot occasionally and chickens were kept in the gardens, including that belonging to Geoff’s family where eggs were also produced.
One story that Geoff’s mother repeated occasionally about the war years in the early forties was the one about a local worker who regularly passed by their house on his bicycle and usually greeted them in a friendly manner when passing. However, during the blitz of London, everyone was very concerned about the German Nazi bombers which were appearing quite frequently overhead and had dropped an assortment of bombs in the neighbourhood. On this morning, he appeared cycling at high speed and shouting repeatedly at the top of his voice ‘They’re coming; they’re coming, get under cover’. Everyone came rushing out of their houses at the noise to find out what was wrong and, when he stopped, he explained breathlessly that ‘the Germans are coming’ pointing towards the sunlit horizon to the east where, he pointed out, a large number of black airborne specks were discernible. My mother quickly explained to the man that she had seen these often before and that they were actually barrage balloons floating on wires above London - not aircraft at all! The man was distinctly relieved at this revelation but departed somewhat abjectly at his error!
During the war, there were a few bombs dropped in the neighbouring area. One attack in particular was not far away at all from their house - perhaps 300 metres away. It happened in the middle of the night so there was nothing seen of the attack. The Germans were on such attacks quite frequently at the beginning of the war and this particular aeroplane flew at high level from the south towards them, dropping a string of five bombs as he went. They later conjectured that perhaps someone had left a light showing or perhaps a bonfire flared up during the night. Whatever the target, the bombs fell across the local fields and were mainly incendiary types rather than high explosive although even incendiaries made quite a loud bang when they went off! The one loud explosion was some distance away across the valley. In Geoff’s house, there were several evacuees from London who were especially frightened at the attack, shouting and screaming with fear perhaps following prior unpleasant experiences in London. Geoff, on the other hand was still asleep until his mother woke him up, got him partially dressed and dragged him downstairs where everyone else was cowering. This fear, and its effect on them, lasted less than an hour and, as there were no more fearsome sounds, everyone went back to bed again, including Geoff himself.
Another source of interest for Geoff during the war was the crashing of aircraft. In particular, American bombers seemed to be the most common source of such events perhaps because there were two military airfields not too far away from his home. On one occasion, he was told about an aircraft crash but it must have been some time after it actually occurred and there was not much of interest apart from some odd metal parts still lying around in the wood. There was another which also lacked interest but the third was a different matter altogether! This one was a huge bomber - an American Flying Fortress - which had crashed into a wood not far from his home near Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire but remained largely intact apart from the wings which had been torn off by the trees, a wide strip of which had been cut short leaving a gap to the sky. There were no air force personnel on board when it crashed and, although the plane was severely damaged after crashing through a number of large trees, there was still a lot to be seen and found there.
There was no guard that the lads could see when they arrived but there was a great deal of interesting debris scattered around in the wood. For example, he was astonished to see belts of half-inch machine-gun bullets mostly armour-piercing but some containing minor explosives and flashing chemical mixtures lying around the plane and ready to be picked up! There were chunky pistols used for firing flares, complete with a supply of their ammunition, one normal military pistol without any bullets and a variety of other devices, use of which was somewhat more obscure. All of this went into the bicycle bags which rapidly filled and they set off home with their treasures determined to return, better prepared, for more! They tremendously enjoyed themselves on this crash site and returned home with many items which seriously worried their parents!
THE EVACUEE CAMP
This account was submitted by Geoff Leggett and an anonymous evacuee who spent some time in the "camp". Geoff writes:
‘During the war a huge mass of wooden huts was built in a field adjacent to the local village of St Margarets which was situated up on the hill above Great Gaddesden. It was known locally as ‘The Evacuee Camp’. [See more information here.] This was constructed to house a huge number of evacuees from London and other cities out in the country and away from the threat of German bombs being dropped during the war. It was also a London County Council school. Geoff had very little to do with this establishment and only a vague knowledge of its origins and usage. He did know, however, as did everyone else in the vicinity, that there were an enormous number of children in the camp who were regularly marched around the area in large groups. As far as he was concerned, the primary attraction of the camp was its internal cinema which was available, free of charge, to local citizens. Geoff made good use of this attraction and saw many popular and good quality films over a period of several years whilst it continued. Needless to say, there was nothing shown which might lead the youngsters viewing it into trouble!
‘A story from another person who was much more familiar with the camp, having been transferred there as an evacuee himself, reads as follows:
‘St Margarets Evacuee Camp - LCC School.
My third evacuation was to be my last - I was sent to the Nettleden LCC School, St Margaret's Camp, Great Gaddesden (near Hemel Hempstead), Hertfordshire. This to me was the beginning of my becoming a man before my time. The school was strictly regimented. We lived in dormitories named Shaftesbury, Lister, Wren, Gordon and Shelley. There were two women called 'Sisters' (like ‘Matrons’), who inspected our beds for tidiness and cleanliness. We were given points, which were added to the points gained for our classroom behaviour, and a pendant was given to the dormitory that had the most points - all the dormitories competed against each other.
The school and classrooms were in the compound at the camp. We were allowed to see a film on a Saturday evening at the camp, and we had our own kitchen there. During the summer we had school in the morning and evening, and the afternoons were for sport and recreation - like looking for golf balls that one schoolmaster, Mr Wade, had knocked all over the grounds! We also worked on the local farms during the school holidays.
Each night we had to have vitamin tablets, given to us when we had gone to bed. In the dormitories we had double bunks. While administering the tablets one master knew who the weak boys were, and his hand would often stretch under the bedclothes - but not mine, luckily - he knew who was who! To give some idea of the type of school, which was full of evacuees - we had 30 (average) in the classrooms. The last term at school I came 27th out of 30 for arithmetic, but overall I came third in the class - can you imagine what the rest were like! But despite this, and despite all the trauma that we went through, we all went on to earn a living in one way or another. While we were there we had to join the Boys Brigade or Scouts. I joined the Scouts, and played the fife (or tried to) in the band.’
(Information sent by individual, July 2009. Barrie now lives in Walmer in Kent.)
I was born in 1935 in Ranelagh Road in what was then Brock's Estate. I lived there through World War II whilst attending Leverstock Green Primary School in Pancake Lane. Mr Ayres was headmaster and Miss Hoggett was one of the teachers. I remember her because she used a wooden ruler across the tender part of your forearm if you misbehaved.
School was a twenty minute walk away from my home, past The Plough pub on St. Albans Road, over the hill, past the blacksmith's workshop, through the village past The Leather Bottle where my father met his friends on Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, and then past (or in!) the village pond, Skeggs corner shop, the village policeman's (PC Aldridge I think) and down Pancake Lane to school.
When the air raid sirens went at school, we had to move into the corridors and sit on mattresses. Of course the frightening times were when we heard the drone of the doodlebugs stop. That was when we were told that the explosion would be ten seconds after the sound stopped. We all cheered up when the all-clear continuous siren sounded, as thankfully no bombs or doodlebugs landed near us.
At home we had a couple of soldiers billetted with us for a while, but not at the same time. We also had two young boys of my age, also at different times. They were evacuated out of London's Cricklewood area to be safer in Hemel. I remember that one of the boys ran away the day after he arrived - he wanted to be back with his mum!
Of course we had ration books for foodstuffs. We used sugar at home and needed the coupons in order to get it. My mother's sister and her policeman husband who lived in Sutton, didn't use sugar and my aunt would have given their sugar ration to us, but being a 'true' copper, my uncle would not let her do it!
With my friend Jimmy Allard, I used to frequent Mr Wiles's farm beside coxpond at the bottom of Vauxhall Road opposite what was Sheldrakes Shop. The Wiles's had children of our age and we used to play and help around the farm. I remember them having landgirls, and also prisoners of war in to help with various farm work. We seemed to have long hot summers in those days.
Coxpond, which was later filled in, was an attraction for us kids, but during the war it was used by the army, including the US army, for submersion trials. The army vehicles, tanks as well, ran in one side of the pond and out the other, probably getting half-submerged. The water sensitive parts of the engines had been covered with a heavy, smelly wax for the trials. We kids loved to be around because we got rides and sweets/chewing gum from the soldiers.
I was going to say that's all I remember, but recall hearing the German propaganda radio broadcasts starting with that deep, gruff voice saying "This is Funf speaking". Maybe not the correct spelling but certainly correct in pronunciation!
(Interview by Fiona Wright and James Moss, July 2009.)
Vera was 12 years old when the war started.
‘I’d left the junior school at Bury Mill End at 11 years of age. I sat for the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School examination but didn’t get through, so I went to the Central School which was situated at Two Waters. I was only there for twelve months when the new Crabtree Lane Senior School was built. Girls were downstairs and boys had the classrooms upstairs. I was there until I was fourteen when I left. I went to work and my first job was at the Hygienic Dairies which was situated in Wood Lane, now St Albans Road (the dual carriageway). I worked 5 days a week plus 11am to 2pm on Sundays for the princely sum of 15 shillings (75 pence).
‘When the air raid siren went off we had to march out of the school in an orderly fashion, across the playground and into our shelters. They were dark, damp and dank - they were horrible. We used to have sit on wooden benches and the teacher for our class would read us a story. We sometimes had to sit under these conditions for about an hour. To use one of today’s expressions, BORING. It could have been much worse - we were very lucky in many respects.
‘There were a lot of evacuees in Hemel and at my school. The proper pupils would take their lessons in the morning at their own school, and then in the afternoon they would go to the church halls or church rooms, so that the evacuees could have the school turn. It wasn’t very good, not the right environment to learn. Fortunately we didn’t have to have any evacuees as we’d already got a lady living with us who lived in the spare bedroom.’
Vera was frightened of being bombed though Hemel Hempstead was very fortunate as few bombs were dropped locally.
‘I always remember September 3rd, 1939, when war was declared. I’d gone along to the little general shop at the bottom of Astley Road to get something and the siren went. I was absolutely petrified. I ran back along the road, it was only a matter of 500 yards, I suppose, and promptly dived under the kitchen table thinking we were going to be bombed. I can still remember it quite clearly now. I think they were probably practising, or to let people know what the air raid siren sounded like. There was one nasty incident down in Belswains Lane when nine people were killed and two houses demolished. On another occasion there was one dropped in Astley Road where three houses were demolished and one person killed. The German bombers just used to sort of - if they’d got any bombs left and were trying to get home - they just used to jettison the bombs anywhere to get rid of them. I know on quite a lot of occasions when my sister and I were in bed together (there were no single beds in those days) we used to hear the German aircraft coming over and it was a terrible, awful drone of the engines. We used to lie there frightened to death and then once the noise had stopped you could start breathing again until the next wave came over. Not very nice but something you had to put up with.’
Rationing was a problem for Vera and her family.
‘It was awful. In fact, when I think back now, I don’t know how my Mum fed us - there were four of us in the family.
‘I remember coming out of the factory where I worked one Saturday morning, and just along the Broadway there was a greengrocers called Leago's and I used to go in there and get vegetables and things like that. I was one of their customers. One day I realised there was a queue. ‘Oh great, I’m going to get on the end of this queue.’ Mrs Leago came out and she looked along the queue and she said, ‘Vera, come along, you’re one of my customers. You don’t need to queue.’ I came out of the queue - I thought ‘Oh dear, Oh dear’ and went straight in the shop and I suppose got about four bananas. But that walk of shame! It was dreadful! You could imagine all the other people standing there. What were their thoughts, I wonder?
‘We had a bit of a back garden but not all that much and we used to have some chickens to get the eggs. Mum used to save all the potato peelings and cabbage stalks and they used to be boiled up and I think they mixed them with some bran or something special to make a feed for them. Bread! Oh, I don’t know about bread, that was all rationed. When I stand down at the Water Gardens now and see the mums and children throwing slices of bread in for the ducks, I think ‘Oh my goodness, what you could do with that.’ One day, I was in the Water Gardens and there were these two young mums with a great big bag of bread and all these lovely slices of bread going into the water. I thought to myself, ‘Oh what a waste.’ They could have made a nice bread pudding with it.
Clothing coupons were also a problem. Girls who didn’t have enough coupons for stockings coloured their bare legs.
‘There was a shortage of stockings. If we were going to a dance I used to paint my legs with some sort of tanning lotion and if you didn’t get it right it looked all streaky. It was awful. I know one year I didn’t have enough coupons for stockings and consequently I had terrible chilblains that winter, where my feet had got so cold.’
Clothes were also hard to come by.
‘When you’re going to a dance you don’t want to keep wearing the same dress all the time. We used to like to have a change of dresses. If I wanted shoes I would go to Watford on a Saturday to a shop called Peter Lord’s, and I know on one occasion I wanted a pair of red shoes, and I wanted a size 6 but they had only got a size 5. So I squeezed my feet into these 5s. I lived to regret it.
‘I worked in a needlework factory and they used to have remnants of cloth for sale. I had one or two of those and made dresses myself. How I did, I can’t think, but I did.’
Despite the hardship, there were also good times. There were dances with soldiers who were stationed in the area or
‘Some of the little halls, local halls like Leverstock Green hall or Cupid Green, they used to have servicemen for dances and we would go. But we had to go on our bikes. You think, today, biking to a dance! We used to prop our bikes up along the side of the hut (the huts were more like a big shed), lock them up and then go in for the dance. Then you had to bike home. Everything was blacked out. There were no lights, except when there was moonlight, and of course there was more chance of an air raid when it was moonlight because it was nice and clear for the bombers.
‘When we came home from the dances or anywhere, there were all these soldiers about but there was never any trouble. We weren’t frightened. We didn’t like coming out in the dark and going home in the dark but were not frightened like we are today of being out in the dark on your own.
‘If we could get tickets for the Guild House, that’s John Dickinson’s Guild House, they used to have some nice dances there. They sometimes had a military band playing and the musicians would come in a lorry. We would get outside at quarter to twelve when the dance finished; it wasn’t allowed to go into Sunday so it was a quarter to twelve finish. We would ask the driver if he would give us a lift up into Marlowes. We would clamber up into the back of the lorry with often the soldiers giving us a pull. We used to bus down to Apsley on the last bus to Watford, which was nine o’clock. My Dad would say ‘I don’t know about you going to a dance, it’s bed time.’ At nine o’clock! I don’t know what he’d say now, - dancing ‘til 3am or whatever. Any rate, when we got up to the top of Bridge Street we used to bang on the floor or shout out, and the lorry would stop and we’d jump down and then walk home.’
There were also dances at the American air base at Bovingdon.
‘There were dances at Bovingdon and a lot of the girls used to go. They would provide trucks for the girls to get back into the town. I think I went once. At St Mary’s Hall in George Street they’d made the hall over to the American air force so they had a club they could relax in. A lot of the girls used to go. I have recollections that it was invitation only. They had a lovely time, learning how to jitterbug.’
Vera also has clear memories of the V-E Day celebrations.
‘I went to Harrow to stay with my two cousins. We went to London the day peace was declared in May 1945. That was just amazing up there, everybody was partying, no going mad, but so relieved to think the war was all over. But of course it wasn’t all over because they were still fighting out in the Far East.
‘We made our way to Buckingham Palace. It would have been Queen Elizabeth and King George VI who came out onto the palace balcony with other members of the royal family. I think we camped out for the night in my cousin’s friends’ living room. It was a good night and everybody was so joyous to think the war was nearly over. But it wasn’t the end of the rationing and shortages. That still carried on for a long time.’
(Interview by Sophie Horwood, November 2008.)
I was four years old and my sister Shirley a year older when we and our mother were evacuated. We went with Earls Mead School, Tottenham, North London, where my sister was a pupil, to a lovely family in Spalding in Lincolnshire. We also stayed with a relative for a short time in Bath. Then there was the ‘phoney war’* and we came back to London, as did lots of other evacuees. This came to an end in June 1940 when the Germans started attacking military targets in the UK and in August they began daylight raids on London.
After the Battle of Britain in September 1940, daylight bombing ceased and London was attacked night after night. We began sleeping in the Anderson air raid shelter in the garden so my parents decided that it would be safer if my mother, Shirley and I were evacuated to the safety of the country. My Dad was a postman in the City of London and he stayed on in our flat in Tottenham. I was upset at the thought of leaving my Dad in London on his own together with my black cat.
We were billeted with four different families in Hemel Hempstead. We were assigned a billeting officer who had previously gone round to houses in the area. If householders had one or two spare rooms they were obliged to take in refugees. The host families were paid a small fee for each evacuee they took in.
I was only 5 years old at the time and really cannot remember much about the move to Hemel. I must have felt a certain relief and been pleased not to be sleeping in the Anderson shelter which was very hot, damp and cramped as two families were sleeping there with a grey blanket the only cover over the doorway. It was said that my sister was blown out of her bunk bed during one particularly heavy bombing raid. My Dad made us children bunk beds so we were reasonably comfortable. Either mum or Dad would go into the house during a raid and come back with tea and biscuits. I was always glad to see them back safe.
Although we got on reasonably well with one family that we were billeted with, unfortunately I have no happy memories of the others. In one billet we would leave a roaring fire and have be in our cold bedroom before the man of the house came home between 5 and 6 pm. We had a sparsely furnished bedroom with a lino covered floor, and there was just one double bed for my mother, sister and I. We would stay huddled together throwing coats over us for extra warmth. Mum said she would sometimes walk us round the streets so we did not get back to the unhappy billets too soon. We always had to be very quiet whilst in these billets.
I have a letter written by Mum to my father about another family we were billeted with. She wrote, ‘They (the family) are all going out on Sunday. I have not had one afternoon by the fire in 6 weeks it wants some sticking you know. So I am looking forward to Sunday just me and the nibs (girls) by the fire. I hope! She goes on to say, ‘So do not waste fares coming to see us this weekend get your shoes instead.’ Postmen wore out a lot of shoes and my folks were very hard up at that time.
I suppose it is understandable that host families did not particularly want a mother and two small children staying with them. Then again, we did not want to be there either but we did not have much choice in the matter.
We sometimes visited our family in London. My grandmother and two aunts and uncles were still living in Tottenham. The German air force had switched to night time raids so my parents thought it reasonably safe to go to London by day. We were to go by the early morning ‘workman’s train’ as it was cheaper. We walked down the road, Shirley and I talking in excited whispers. It was very dark because of the blackout. We waited on Apsley station and the huge, black steam train came puffing and steaming into the station. We all scrambled into the third class carriage and away we went, the wheels occasionally slipping on the line. Then we were on the underground train and heading for the Seven Sisters station. The doors of the train opened and as we stepped onto the platform I saw hundreds of men, women and children all huddled together in blankets with their belongings. Some were asleep as it was still early morning. They had been there all night as this was their shelter during the bombing raids. We had to walk carefully as we only had about a two foot wide path between the departing train and the people.
The Apsley Church Hall was taken over to provide a school for the evacuee children. The hall was divided into two sections with a curtain down the middle. The younger children were on one side and the older on the other. There was an outside toilet. One of the teachers from those days, would, sometime later, teach my younger son, Martin, at Maylands (now Hobletts Manor) School. On one occasion some American servicemen paid the school of evacuees a visit and handed out dolls to certain children. My sister, being the elder child in the family was lucky enough to get one. Once a week we had a gas mask test. I had a Mickey Mouse gas mask with a floppy nose. My sister and I hated putting on these tight masks.
Sometime later I transferred to a school in Apsley that is no longer there, and when we moved to Paradise I transferred to Bury Road School which was situated on the corner of Astley Hill and Bury Road. It is now a children’s nursery. The school had its own air raid shelter which was very gloomy and in which we spent quite a lot of time. We would sing ‘Ten Green Bottles’ and when finished would start all over again.
After about a year in billets my parents rented an old cottage at 38 Paradise and I’m sure this must have saved my mother’s sanity. We children could make as much noise as we wanted. We were a family again as Dad had been able to transfer to the Hemel Hempstead Post Office. But this was short lived as he was conscripted into the army in April 1942 and served in North West Europe from shortly after D-day until the war ended. When Dad was demobbed and came home it was like having a stranger in the house and it took time for me to get to know him again. It was good that there was to be no more bombings.
My Mum, sister and I returned to Tottenham and stayed with my mother’s family for the end of war celebrations before returning to Hemel Hempstead. Some years later my parents bought the cottage in Paradise for about 100. I lived there with my parents until 1960 when I married and lived in a caravan situated in the back garden of the cottage which my sister and her husband had vacated. My husband and I stayed there until 1962 when the cottage and surrounding area were compulsory purchased by the New Towns Commission. It was a sad day when we left the caravan and our cottage in Paradise.
*Phoney war - A period at the beginning of the war during which no fighting took place.
(Interview by Sarah Jane Kay, August 2010.)
This is the story of Jeanette (Jean) Anne Martin, her twin brother James (Jimmy) Vernon Martin and older brother Ernest Peter Joseph Martin, who was always called Peter. They lived in Malden Road, Kentish Town in London.
‘We were evacuated on 3rd September 1939 from Fleet Road School in Hampstead, London. We arrived in Berkhamsted (Hertfordshire) with nowhere very much to go. Children were lined up and delegated to various people who said things like, ‘I’ll take this one and I’ll take that one’. We were pretty much the last on the list as twins and an older brother who didn’t want to be separated and we kept holding hands. It was getting dark so they took us to a temporary billet in a very affluent house but we couldn’t stay there for more than a couple of days. The lady there was quite unkind despite the fact that we were very young. Jimmy and I were barely 6 years old and Peter was 10. There was some talk of people taking us in during the day time and sending us somewhere else to sleep but that didn’t work out. Peter was a very endearing boy with blond hair and a mischievous way and he was eventually chosen. No one really wanted to take us twins until Aunty Lizzie said she would have us.
‘The people who took Peter were very cruel and treated him badly, for example locking him in a cupboard under the stairs. My Mum would give him half a crown, a lot of money in those days, to buy lemonade and a biscuit when the family went out. But they would get him a glass of water and no biscuit and take the money. He was so unhappy he ran away and hitch-hiked and walked back to London, about 28 miles.
My mother was so angry she almost broke their door down, but to no avail. She could not get to the woman. They had put his suitcase on the doorstep and locked the door. They were ready to call the police so we had no comeback. My mother would have killed her I think.
‘Because he had run away Peter was tarnished and was sent back and put in a strict boys’ camp run by the Boys’ Brigade in Great Gaddesden. But this wasn’t fair because he had run away because of the cruelty. The children there lived in big black huts. I’m not absolutely sure about this but I think he could not leave until he was old enough to work. But anyway, he had to stay until he was about 14 years old.
‘Jimmy and I lived at 21 Highfield Road (now 47). It was a terraced cottage and former Dickensian style shop with cellar. There was no electricity upstairs so we had to take a candle to bed. There were lovely walks on the common land fronting Berkhamsted towards Ashridge. We picked red and gold raspberries, wild cherries, nuts, crab apples and blackberries. The bluebells were beautiful in the spring and there were wild primroses, sloes, buttercups, cowslips, giant daisies and foxgloves and ferns of all types. To the rear was woodland beyond farms towards Bovingdon aerodrome where the *G.I.s were stationed and the Flying Fortresses stood. When we walked over the common, some miles across to the other side of town, sometimes there were Romany Gypsies camped there and they made wooden pegs and other crafted goods to sell. We were a bit afraid of them. Many years later when we had married and had children of our own we would go back there and have picnics and pick blackberries, sit in the bluebell woods and have a beautiful time there. So, although evacuation is harsh, it did have some payback.
‘Uncle Charlie and Aunty Lizzie Holiday were already old when they took us in. Aunty was in her seventies at the end of the war. She dressed very Victorian-like with her hair in a ‘cottage loaf’ bun. Uncle Charlie had been gassed in the First World War and was a semi-invalid. Aunty had been a nurse. They both worked at Berkhamsted Girls School where he was the caretaker and she was the matron. We picked apples that grew in the school grounds and wrapped them in blankets and stored them in the cellar. We also stored nuts in sand in tins. They were not to be eaten until Christmas. We ate well. It must have been quite costly to take on 2 children when they had none of their own.
‘In Berkhamsted, as infants, we were able to borrow some space in the Foundling Home which was used as a school. They let a room for the underage pupils. We were given a few gifts from the G.I.s. We then went to a church school in Victoria Road. We worshipped at St Peter’s Church and the Baptist chapel in the High Street.
‘Aunty also taught me a great deal at home - reading, writing, embroidery and especially sewing which I do to this day. Sewing became my trade when I got my first job. I was a dressmaker at the age of 12. I passed my 11 plus so should have gone to grammar school but I got scarlet fever that left me with a neurological condition and then had a nervous breakdown so my secondary education was badly damaged.
‘I think Aunty courted a soldier who died in the First World War and she married Uncle Charlie late. On the Sundays that our parents didn?t visit we had a treat of looking through scrap books and memorabilia. She had postcards from the front, pictures of soldiers and beautiful embroidered valentines with lace and ribbon threaded through them. Very romantic! It made me think she had been a spinster for some time.
‘Aunty came to London to visit us after the war and when Uncle Charlie died she went to live with her sister in Luton.
‘We would go for walks across the common to Potten End, which had a Benskins pub where my foster parents would treat us to a glass of lemonade and an arrowroot biscuit. Uncle Charlie would have a glass of beer. Peter had to walk all the way across the common and down the lane to see us once a month, a round trip of about 10 miles. We could see him from some distance away as he walked. We could sometimes see him waving a big white hankie to us. That was how we communicated and he let us know he was alright.
‘My Dad worked on the railways. He had had a double mastoid and ear bone removal so could not go in the army. My Mum was a hairdresser but was called up for war work. She delivered perishable goods and food in London with a railway cart and horses, dodging the bombs. Mum and Dad visited us once a month. Uncle Charlie walked with us to meet the train and then we would stop off at the Benskins pub by Berkhamsted railway station. My Dad liked a beer. We had lemonade and a biscuit. There were no sweets or chocolate due to rationing. Peter would also meet us at the station. Then we would go to the house and Aunty did a hearty meal for us all, quite a feat with rationing. She also had no cooker and used a *kitchen range. She would cook something like a roasted pig’s head and apple pie. She picked fruit from the common and we had the apples from Berkhamsted Girls’ School, where Uncle Charlie was in charge of the orchards. She bottled fruit and stored it in the cellar. Uncle Charlie and my Dad would take us for a walk in woods in the afternoon. Then we had tea - bread and jam, biscuits and a cup of tea and walked back to the station to wave them off. Peter would leave from the station and we would stand outside in the garden and he would swing his big white bag as a signal that he was home safely. He took one of his socks off and put stones in it and then swung it round as a weapon in case the Gypsies tried to steal him. He also did this when he ran away to London.
‘We twins didn’t visit London during the war so didn’t go home until 1945.
‘We were called names by the local children such as Londonite and guttersnipe. You were only allowed to take one little suitcase, not much bigger than the gas mask case, with a change of underwear. We weren’t dressed smartly so we were called names. We spoke slightly differently to the rural language of the time and the accent at that time in Berkhamsted was very strong. Aunty Lizzie got hold of some clothing for us and Mum made me a few dresses and sent them, but Jimmy played out in the garden in threadbare trousers to save his only decent pair.
‘We were shielded from the full harshness of what was happening in the war but we could listen to the *wireless and at night-times you could sometimes see ‘dog fights’ between English and German planes and we saw some planes come down in flames. But this was small compared to what was happening in London. You could hear the barrage in London. You also knew that because of what was happening you might not see your Mum and Dad again. They were living in danger all the time.
‘The hardest thing to cope with was the hurt inside you and that stays with you all your life; the lack of affection until people really got to know you. It was also the harshness and regimentation of it - being herded together. You had to grow up before your time. Sometimes you longed for a hug from your Mum and you would cry at night-time for your parents. You wanted that hug so badly. We knew that Uncle Charlie and Aunty Lizzie wanted to adopt us and grew to love Jimmy and I and we them. But Peter’s life was hard. He had no one to give him a hug and there was cruelty even in the huts where he was billeted. There is nothing as bad as being torn away from your mother and father when you are only 6 years old, though we had love and care from our foster parents.
The parents had to be hardened too. They had to put a curtain down between themselves and the children. Government policy was that the father should be in the forces, the mother in war work and the children evacuated. My Mum never spoke to me about how she felt and I never felt I could ask.
*G. I. - American soldier
* Kitchen range - A system of cooking in which the oven is built next to an open fire and is heated by the fire. The fire might also be used for boiling water and cooking.
*Wireless - radio
(Information sent by individual, July 2009.)
We were a family of three children living with our parents in Eccleston Road, Islington who were evacuated at the start of the Second World War. The school arranged for mothers and children to be evacuated as family units. My mother's two sisters, Lilian Clarke with her daughter Maureen and Violet Davy and her son Ronald came too. The coach took us all to Euston Station at 9 a.m. We had a nurse in our carriage as my mother, Daisy, was recovering from a mental breakdown following the birth of twins Terry and Joyce in September 1938. Unfortunately by the time we were evacuated Joyce had died.
On the journey from Euston to somewhere in the midlands, we were puzzled when the train stopped at Hemel Hempstead & Boxmoor station at about 11 a.m. WAR HAD BEEN DECLARED. All transport was immediately halted in England and we had to get off and lie down under the horse-chestnut trees on the moor by the Fishery Inn. A beautiful spot. My sister June (6 years), Terry (almost 1 year) and myself (7 years), were enjoying our "holiday". Later we had to take what seemed a long walk to St. John's Hall where the W.V.S. (Women's Voluntary Service) had tea, orange juice and biscuits organised for us. The good ladies gathered to choose who they would accept as evacuees to live with them. My mother had to choose the two younger children to go with her to Mrs. Smith in Sebright Road, I was left out!
My aunt, Vi Davy, took me, together with her son Ron, to live in Grosvenor Terrace, and my aunt Lil and her daughter Maureen went to Horsecroft Road. After a very short period of time Mrs Smith agreed for me to join my family and before my father was called up into the Royal Artillery he also spent weekends with us. We attended Cowper Road Infants School and later St. John's School with Mr W.G.S. Crook as headmaster. We used to ride our roller skates to St John's School but a policeman stopped us because the skates made a sound like something dropped by German aeroplanes.
During the war we used to enjoy our time at the evacuees club in Marlowes opposite Mrs Dean's house and garden where she gave us tea parties. Her husband was a dentist. We were given sweets, food and presents from the American servicemen at Bovingdon Camp and a Christmas party. I remember going potato picking following the tractor with big baskets, gleaning corn for our hens, picking rose hips to make into syrup and blackberries for jam. I also remember picking raspberries at Ley Hill common and getting a lift on an army truck.
Our mother and aunts took us to the golf common where we rolled hard boiled eggs down the slopes in summer and tobogganed in winter. My mother made many of our clothes and for others too. One day hurrying to machine sheets she ran to aunt Kit Street and got her to use a pair of pliers to remove a broken machine needle from her finger. That was whilst we were living at Sunnyhill Road where we had moved to a house in 1940. We kept chickens for eggs and for eating. One cockerel used to chase us and bite our ankles. He made a good Christmas dinner. We also kept rabbits.
When we visited my grandmother and family back in Islington I was very scared. We saw lots of damage, barrage balloons and searchlights. The firemen were very brave and so were the ack-ack gun crews. I was always glad to travel back on the train to Hemel Hempstead.
At the age of 11 years I was not allowed to sit the examination for the Grammar School because I was an evacuee, even though I had attended local schools for 4-plus years. Mr Crook was incensed at the discrimination and arranged for me to sit the London Board examination. As I passed this examination he again put me forward for the Grammar School but by then I had to spend a year at Corner Hall School where Miss Jones was headmistress.
Whilst at Corner Hall School we were taken swimming and one day a teacher was vigorously demonstrating what to do when she fell into the pool! Lots of cheering from us but Mr Whittle, the pool superintendent, restored order. At Corner Hall I spent many hours in the shelters during air raids when we were all encouraged to sing and were given barley sugar sweets.
I started at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School in the 2nd year.
(Interview by James Price and Glen Taylor, December 2010.)
I was born in Leavesden on 8th December1920. I left the village church school at 14 and got a job with an upholsterer in Abbotts Langley. I had various jobs after that including working for a public works contractor in Hemel Hempstead. We were in at the beginning of the new town and did quite a bit of work for the New Town Commission. I finally went to work as a gardener for Chiltern-Hunts and stayed there until I was 65 and then worked part time for another 10 years at their place in Shendish.
You would like to know about my experiences in the war? Well, I wasn’t a fighting man, I was a transport man. I was called up in early 1940 and was one of the last 20 year olds to be called up and then they dropped it back to 18. I went to St Albans for a medical and they said I was fit and that I’d better go and see the officer to see which regiment I should go into. I went to his office and I’d already been doing a bit of driving and who should I meet but this colonel from a Scottish regiment. He said, ‘You can drive?’ and that was me into it. We started congregating on the train and eventually we came to Porton Down and there was this big sergeant shouting and hollering. We went to the barracks and we was given a uniform and kit and 2 sheets and then we were marched to where the barrack room was. Well, the uniforms! - the man behind the counter eyed you up and decided what size you needed and chucked them at you. We had quite a laugh because those who had a uniform that didn’t fit you had to go round and find someone who had something that did fit you.
We started. The idea was to have a month’s drill to make us into soldiers and we spent this month marching backwards and forwards and saluting and one-thing-and-another. I remember the first pay day - if you didn’t salute right, it was ‘stand over there’ or if you didn’t know your number. Then we was told to parade outside after tea and we had an hour’s drill. I’ll always remember the chap next to me kept saying, ‘We’ll never get out of here with that corporal’ and I said, ‘He keeps looking at his watch as well’. We then went to a driving school. They had what was called ‘mounting drill’. You had to stand next to your vehicle and at a command you had to see if there were 4 wheels on and if the tyres were blown up and then you stood in front of the vehicle and then you’d get in. We had about a month there and when we left, we’d done with that and it was get in the lorry and let’s get going.
We was eventually posted to Camelford in north Cornwall. The porter was very insistent that we got in the right carriage on the train. Well, when we got to Camelford the rest of the train has disappeared. The system they had on the Great Western of slipping coaches meant they’d unhooked, then all away! When we got to this place we found they had no vehicles and not enough rifles to go round so you had to borrow one if you were on guard. We had quite a reasonable summer there because we was quite near the coast and we could go there on the weekend.
Eventually we got some vehicles and moved up to Wimbourne where we had ‘luxurious billets’. It was a racing stables and we had 6 men to a horse box!
Then 6 of us were posted to a unit in Chard and soon as we got there we could see they was going overseas and we was last minute reinforcements. We was billeted at Christmas in a horrible old glove factory that was filthy dirty. We had no beds and we couldn’t sleep on the floor because it was too dirty so we all slept on barrack room tables. Anyway, eventually they had a platoon of non-drivers who went overseas and we were disbanded and sent to Exeter and attached to the Southern Command and the 7th East Yorks. Later we got some English made tank transporters and did quite a bit of experimental work. We took the first lot of experimental amphibious tanks from Castle Bromwich to the coast in Lincolnshire. They had a canvas side and airbags that pumped up and pulled them up. They was watertight - they hoped! We saw them floating about in the lake. It was ideal. They could come in on a landing craft and go into the water and then out (onto dry land).
Sometime after that we went into billets at Enfield and began to get the American Diamond Ts - big 6 wheeled vehicles. And we had a trailer that was made by the Dyson Company in England. At the back of the vehicle was a great big ballast box and they had the idea of filling it with old tank treads but they wasn’t heavy enough. Then they tried sand. If you happened to be going along the road years ago they used to get sticky in summer. You wouldn’t be able to get up the hills. They was too light. Eventually they got it right. They put 10 tons of pig iron in the box and that seemed to do it alright!
We were known as War Office Transport then and we moved tanks about England. The Americans were bringing in their tanks that we picked up from Bristol or the South Wales ports and took them to the old training place at Tidsworth. There was a picture in Picture Post one time that showed American tanks as far as you could see and that was Tidsworth.
One experience I had was in Doncaster. The corporal in charge of our section liked to drive the lorries. He said to me one morning, ‘Ere, let me have a drive’. We came to this big crossroads so he said, ‘Get out and when the others come, tell them this way.’ Well, I never saw no others. I knew they were going to Wetherby so I tried to get a lift but there was a big convoy going up and you couldn’t get near a private vehicle. I eventually got there and didn’t know where to go so I thought I’d better report to somebody so I went to the local police station. I only had a boiler suit on, not a uniform. The policeman there said, ‘Ah yes. I think you’d better go York’ - that was Northern Command Headquarters. He took me to the York road and stopped a car and so I got to Northern HQ. I went up the steps and there was a big blue cap on the door. They took me to the officer in charge of transport and I thought, ‘I’m for it now’, but he said ‘Ah, I’ve been wanting to meet one of you’ and arranged for his staff to get me a meal and then take me to the YMCA. I got a train to somewhere on the moors and met up with a company there. All the officer said when he came along was ‘Well, you’ll want 2 days subsistence, won’t you?’
Eventually we had to hand our vehicles over to another company and we went to Chalkwell near Southend-on-Sea. They didn’t know where to send us and we sat on our kit all one day and on Sunday afternoon they said we were going to march to Southend station. Well, either they didn’t get the message right or they got the wrong station. We went to one station and there we were - rows and rows of us standing outside the station and the officer went in and came out and we had to march to the other station.
We arrived in Hull and started getting new vehicles. I remember the night before D-day. We had a very pleasant journey through the Derbyshire Dales in brilliant moonlight and we got to a transit camp early in the morning and it came over the tannoy that they’d invaded. We got organised and moved towards London. We were in houses that was partly built - they hadn’t been plastered inside and it seemed like there was a man riding up and down the road on a motorbike without a silencer, but we soon found we was wrong. They were doodle bugs going over.
We were sent to France following the D-day landings but spent quite a lot of time in the New Forest first because our vehicles were too big and there wasn’t enough room to use them until they took Caen. We used to convoy reinforcements up but it was quite awkward because most of the bridges were not strong enough. Usually there were 2 bridges. So we had to pull up, unload the tanks, cross and then load again. We went nearly a mile up the road before we started loading again. We carried ‘ducks’. These were American amphibious troop carriers with very flimsy tracks that couldn’t run any distance on hard ground.
We followed the troops up and then stopped in Belgium and had various workshops there. We eventually moved into Germany and I drove a transporter across a pontoon bridge over the Rhine. The Dutch were very hard hit by the war. They had no fuel. They’d run a bicycle down the street. They might be lucky enough to have a blown up tyre at the front but they’d have a pram wheel at the back. I left Germany on a stretcher. Workshop staff were standing round a fire in a goods yard. Well, they’d left demolition charges and there was one in a piece of wood. I don’t know why I should have been chosen but I was a casualty. I was taken by air to Brussels and was in hospital there and then I went to Ostend. Whilst I was in hospital in Ostend, the war finished. I can remember the aircraft flying over very low taking the prisoners (of war) home.
Eventually I come back and I was going to be on a draft to India. Fortunately I was a driver mechanic and they only wanted drivers. I was posted to Bicester garrison and drove the officer in charge of transport until I was demobbed in the late summer of 1946. We went to Guildford and Burtons was there and we all had these suits. For some reason or other everybody knew it was a demob suit. You could have trilby hats and all sorts. And that’s when I finished.
*RASC - Royal Army Service Corps
(Interview by Pippa Carr and Laura Dowse, October 2011.)
Early interest in the RAF
I wanted to join the RAF because from about 1934. I began reading about the RFC in the First World War and it hooked me so much that I got ticked off (at school) over and over again and my odd job book was filled with sketches of aircraft. And I still kept drawing them.
One thing led to another and I was coming up to 17. I thought Dad’s just the person to ask. I said, ‘Dad, I’m turning 17 in a few weeks time. Any chance you would sign my application?’ ‘What for?’ he said. ‘To join the RAF and fly. They’d only be little aircraft.’ My father had been in the 2nd Battalion, Enniskillen Fusiliers, although he wasn’t Irish himself. He said, ‘If you’d seen the poor b?. coming down from the sky on fire, no parachutes. So, no.’ Once I left school in 1936 I went to work for John Dickinson & Sons in Apsley as a clerk. But he finally gave in and the forms were sent off to join the *RAFVR. On May 18th 1939 a bunch of hopefuls gathered at Luton for medical and suitability checks. What a sight! Fifty or sixty of us most of whom came from the nearby hat factories.
There was a lot of derision because the girls in the hat factory next door stood at the windows watching. That turned to alarm when we realised that they were still there watching when we stripped off and went through various naked (medical) procedures. At the end of the day I was told, ‘You’re in.’
I joined the No.29 E&RFTS RAF Volunteer Reserve at Luton. We were flying Miles Magisters; single engine, twin pilots - one behind the other. The trainee pilot sat at the front. That went reasonably well for 3 weeks and then one of the instructors dived onto a section of the land owned by the Vauxhall firm. Both (pilots) survived but it was a bit of a mess and made the instructors realise how vulnerable they were.
It went on like that until they announced that we were at war with Germany. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1st I was at work and we watched as various people were called up to their units, but not the RAFVR. Eventually after work dad and I drove across from Hemel to Luton. It was absolutely tremendous. The town centre was jam packed with 17-20 year olds, all as happy as Larry, each with a pint pot in his hand. My father, who had been in the First World War, was a bit upset about it and the war hadn’t even started yet. They didn’t want us yet, so we were all sent home.
We were told that we could pack in our day time jobs. That was the (best) day of my life. On the day that war was declared, mother phoned to say it was on. I started packing up my desk and my boss was suddenly all excited. He said, ‘Mr Denchfield, what are you doing?’ ‘I’m packing my desk up.’ You can’t do that until I tell you to.’ I said, ‘If you stand there in 5 minutes time and you still see me it will be a miracle. I’m off home and I’m now under the control of the RAF.’ A week later the call-up came.
We went to Bexhill first where we were taught the basics and then to various other flying schools. At Chester, thank the Lord, Spits (Spitfires) turned up. Ollie Cooper and I adopted the habit that when we flew on a different aircraft the one who went first would hold his hand out and get **half a crown from the other. When we first flew Spits I was hoping to be the first away but I was having a bit of a conversation with the Flight Sergeant and Ollie Cooper beat me to it. Anyway, I duly took off and did my half an hour flight and landed. It was stupendous I’d never been in an aircraft like it. You fiddled with the controls and you felt the response immediately.
When I got back Ollie came over and gave me half a crown. I said, ‘Don’t be bloody silly.’ He went off about half an hour before I did. He said, ‘Did you see what I saw on the tarmac?’ I said, ‘You mean that Spitfire stuck up on 2 legs and nose?’ I said, ‘I wonder who the clot was who did that? Was it you?’ He said, ‘Yes. You know how I used to turn Harvards by putting hard rudder on and opening the throttle. I did that in the Spit and it didn’t turn.’
Taken prisoner, 5th February 1915, St. Omer
I bailed out of the aircraft which was on fire. I had previously unhooked all my bits and pieces so I was free of the aircraft. I had realised where I’d got the smell of fuel from. It was in the fuselage underneath my feet. There was an inch and half at least of fuel mixture washing backwards and forwards and I thought, ‘God, it just takes one round going through over the top of that and I’m on fire.’ I thought, ‘I’ll bail out.’ I’d been airborne for about 10 minutes or so. There was a sudden burst of flame from up front and an awful noise and I was gone. I just stuck the stick hard forward and she (the plane) helped me no end by spinning over at the same time and threw me clear. I landed on an iron hard, icy, snow-capped field. I had lost one boot so I had to land on one foot. I was glad I did because the snow was like little bits of ice sticking up. I got rid of my equipment and buried it in the snow around me and then had one of those moments of nature. I decided I needed a pee badly. I was in the middle of this when I caught sight of 2 blokes in green uniforms coming towards me. Without thinking I dived flat in the snow but they must have seen me because they kept coming straight ahead, so I stood up. They said, ‘Ah, Mr RAF, for you the war is over.’ They took me back to their place. I was introduced to pilots right, left and centre because St Omer was the base for that fighter unit. I met the bloke [Major Walter Oesau] who said he’d shot me down. He lasted until 1944 when he was shot down over France by a Mustang. By that time he had scored over 100 victories (planes shot down). I was his 40th.
I went from the St Omer centre in company with another pilot who’d been shot down. He’d got shrapnel in his back so he wasn’t very happy but he could speak German which I couldn’t.
Eventually I was shunted off to a prison camp under the guard of 2 Luftwaffe people who were going on leave. When we got there I teemed up with a bloke called Jones. We called him Flip because he’d had an operation that upset his talking and he sounded like Flip the Frog. We were together for the whole time. We went to different camps in Germany, Poland and Latvia. We were not always well treated. A lot of it was brought on by ourselves because we had a policy of making the Huns hurt. We did things like b* up their bicycles if they were unwise enough to leave them and anything like that. They didn’t feed us well. If it hadn’t been for the Red Cross and their weekly parcels we would have got very short of food. People at home knew that I was alive. We had 3 letter cards and I think 2 postcards to send to whoever we wanted.
By early March 1945, I was at Stalag Luft 357, Fallingbostel and we knew that things were coming to an end, the Rhine had been crossed and our troops were streaming eastwards. We all made up emergency packs as best we could as it was obvious that we would soon be on the move. It wasn’t long before we were marched out, on a march that was to last until May 1st. At first we were marched south from the camp having made a wreck of what was left (of it). We were told we were going north but after about 10 days we turned round and came back. The German sergeant in charge of us said, ‘Look, don’t laugh at me but we are going to turn and go back west’. There was a raucous burst of laughter. He said, ‘No, I mean it. I’ve been getting instructions daily on where to take you and these instructions have ceased with the death of Hitler. I’m going to march you back to the west and hope that we come across English or American troops.’
So we did, and days later when it was still light we were parked in a road leading up to a farmhouse. We’d been given a place to sleep in and it was a place that had been used to store sick animals and we had to clean it out first. We were cooking a meal in the roadway with what we’d got and suddenly a voice said, ‘I’ve just seen a British tank’. He might as well have said. ‘I’m Adolf Hitler’. He said, ‘I mean it. Aren’t you listening to me? I’ve seen several of them.’ At that there was the sound of tins and crashing. He said, ‘They gave me a sack of tins - food.’ At that everyone woke up.
The next morning without getting the okay from anyone we set off in various groups down to a village we’d seen and there we saw American tanks with British people in them. We put our heads through the officer’s window and said, ‘Any chance of any firearms?’ ‘Oh, no,’ he said, ‘We can’t allow Prisoners of War to have them.’ We said that we had been allowed to have 8 machine guns in our Spitfires and nobody cared where we fired them or anything and now you won’t let us have a rifle each.
We swore at him and walked away. Shortly after that British troops arrived and we were told to go and pick up a German car. A car came along and out got 2 Luftwaffers and 2 women. Very attractive they were too. I held a pistol that I’d managed to get by then and Flip said, ‘I’ll just search the women.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘Well, you never know. Women nowadays do most things.’ The squeals those women made when Flip was running his hands over them searching for guns!
We marched back towards the Channel coast. We got as far as an airfield at Rhine, from where they were flying people home. This was a British run place, mark you and we were expected to pick up a plate that someone had just used and a knife and fork. What they’d had was egg and potatoes. You couldn’t clean the plate.
We’d just joined the queue when some sergeant said, ‘I’m asking for members of party ‘so and so’ to follow me. We’re flying you home.’ That was us. We dropped the plates, shot across ‘flying in’, and picked up a parachute almost without stopping to draw breath. We got on a Lancaster which turned out to have been from 617 Squadron, the ‘dam busters’. This one was one of their later planes and was used to drop the 10 ton ‘Grand Slam’ bomb The first night back they laid on a gorgeous supper in one of the empty hangars. There was table after table. Each one had 10 people on including one of the ladies’ services, civilians as well as military. We had great difficulty in not using the language we had been using for the past 4 years. Eventually one of the army people lost his wit completely and said, ‘Hey, mate pass the bloody sugar.’ Only he didn’t say bloody. He used some other word. That set us all laughing. Even the girls laughed, and we were okay after that. And then we got home eventually. I got to see a girl called Barbara Gregson. I was told she’d like to talk to me. I’d been her boyfriend in 1935 when she was 15. She was with the police in Watford. So I got in touch with her and eventually we were married.
I wanted to stay in the RAF but they told me there wasn’t a post so I went to work for AVRO up near Leeds. I don’t regret joining up despite all that happened. I remember stories my Dad used to tell about the trenches and I thought I’m never going to go through what Dad went through. I’d sooner go out quickly so I’ll go for the RAF. What people went through in the First World War was sheer bloody horror. Mark you; there were episodes in the Second World War that were of a similar nature. War is the same, I suppose.
* RAFVR - Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve ** Half a crown - a coin worth about 12- pence in today’s money
(Source: David Denchfield’s written memoirs, supplied by his son, Nigel, October 2011.)
THE PLANE IS HIT
Just after crossing the French coast I reported some contrails up to port and slightly to our rear, but they extinguished almost immediately, so whatever it was had moved either above or below the contrail level. I had no idea where we were-there was no time to look at the map which was left folded in my left boot- but we must have been near to the target (the airfield of St. Omer), when I caught a flash way up behind as I was about to start the steep turn back towards the centre once more. I held off the turn to have a good check, and then turned back, only to see the squadron a good 800 yards or so away in front as my extended run had taken us apart. As speed in regaining position seemed to be vital, it was not clever to be on one's own in enemy skies, I did a quick left and right steep turn during which I had a good shufti behind, and then slung the coal on and went fast to get back with the rest.
I was about halfway back and about to have another look behind, when there was a sudden staccato vibration and sparks seemed to erupt out of my port wingtip. My ‘bloody hell' and steep left hand turn initiation only just beat a violent clang from up front, at which the rudder pedals suddenly lost all feel and became seemingly disconnected from the rudder. As the nose fell away the cockpit filled with a white mist accompanied by a foul smell of glycol and 100-octane fuel. I let the nose go on down hoping whatever it was couldn't follow and that the mist would clear before it became a problem (I remembered the unseen white hot debris from the exhausts, and in the context of the fuel smell didn't have a lot of confidence in the immediate future).
The mist rapidly went however, and I was able to ease out of the steep diving turn to edge slightly west of north whilst weaving like mad one way and the other to clear my tail, and able now to check damage. The port wingtip was mangled, the rudder just a useless uncontrollable flap, the radiator: and oil temperatures were perhaps a little too high, and the elevator perhaps a bit less than precise. However she was still flying and I was at about 9,000ft having lost the rest in the diving turn, and thinking it might be an uncomfortable ride home.
Over the next few minutes the radiator and oil temps showed a gradual but steady rise, and I found the cause of the petrol smell, nearly 20 gallons of fuel were sloshing about in the belly of the fuselage under my feet. I now knew why my lower legs were so cold -on the ground I later found the insides of my flying boot and my trouser legs were absolutely saturated with the damn stuff. On checking the fuel gauge the top tank was empty so that had clearly been hit, as had the glycol tank or piping.
By now I was having to accept a gradual height loss in order to maintain the 290mph desirable as the Merlin seemed not to be giving its best, and another cause of disquiet was the ever increasing amount of tail heavy trim having to be wound on to stop the nose from dropping. Looking in my rear view mirror I thought I could see strips of fabric trailing from the elevators -the view was not all that clear, but if it was so could have accounted for the effect on the a/c. Some 6 minutes after being hit we were down to maybe 6,000ft with the radiator temp almost in the red. I could see the Channel, and had seen the Blenheims pass about 1,000ft above me clearly on their way home and going like the Devil.
My thought was that she'd never reach the Channel and I wasn't about to try to put her down -not with all that petrol washing around, so like a good Boy Scout I prepared by disconnecting my helmet leads and ramming them securely into my parachute harness straps, and then released my Sutton harness so I was unattached to the a/ c. There seemed little point in doing anything else as I'd run out of scope in playing with pitch control and throttle, and when all throttle movement had been used she was clearly going to go in only one direction, even if the overheating didn't do it first - and that was down. I decided to stand on the seat and then kick the stick forward to throw me out, but my planning came to naught. A most expensive sounding noise came from up front, accompanied by darkish smoke and jets of flame, and as I started to stand, letting go of the stick, dear old 'P' helped me to the last. She threw her nose violently down and I shot up and out like the cork from a bottle! And then there was only a flickering jumble of sky and snow as I obviously somersaulted, until I yanked the ripcord. What a relief to be right way up, and even greater to look up and check the beautiful white canopy fully open. My right boot had disappeared as I was launched from the a/c, so the landing itself -on one foot to save my unbooted one was a bi t of a thud, but there I was in the middle of a snow- covered stubble field-iron hard! The only cover in sight was a clump of bushes maybe 10o yards away up a slight slope. They were not leafed and even a mouse would have laughed at them, but I couldn't be a chooser so I dragged myself and chute up there, where there was snow about 18ins deep into which I pushed the chute and the mike etc from my helmet. I then attempted to' shoe' my right foot by tying the oxygen tube in such a fashion as to hold the helmet around my foot; this worked reasonably well.
I was now aware I hadn't had a pee since early in the morning, and I was thus engaged, crouched behind these silly little bushes, when two uniforms walked through a field entrance some 25oyards away. I finished my pee lying down! It was to no avail -they walked straight up to me, and as I stood up the one with the gun said ‘For you the war is over' (and I thought they only said that in things like the 'Hotspur' and 'Magnet', we live and learn).
It was all very friendly, and we walked as a small group down to the opening they'd come through, meeting on the way a French boy of about 8/Ioyrs old who asked my age. Although I understood him perfectly my answer of 21 was given using all 8 fingers and 2 thumbs twice and a bit!
We got into the Ford V8 they'd arrived in, and drove, perhaps, 400 yards to where the remains of poor ‘P’ were smoking.
She had impacted on the side of the road which was sunken slightly below the field level, and all that could be seen was a rather buckled tail assembly sitting on top of a mass of jumbled scrap metal in what was clearly a damn great hole. I could see nothing identifiable in this mess -no sign of seat, panel, oxygen bottles -no nothing; and I guessed it was my good fortune not to be with it all umpteen feet down. Broken chunks of main plane lay at the side together with the broken remains of 8 Browning. 303 machine guns, barrels snapped, and 8 ammo boxes with sides peeled back to show the indentations of the cartridge rims on the inside surfaces looking most like a machined finish. Ammunition lay everywhere. Loose wreckage lay all over the road and elsewhere -I picked up the tail wheel from 200 yards inside an adjacent field!
She (N3249) was manufactured by Vickers Supermarine at Woolston near Portsmouth in December 1939, being in one of the earliest batches made. She had flown with 92 and 602 squadrons, with 92 she had scored over France during the Dunkirk evacuation in the hands of Stanford Tuck. She had the original type of u/c retraction via a lever in a box on the right hand side to select 'up' or-'down', and out of the same box a lever with which to pump up the hydraulic pressure to effect the required change. As pumping with the right hand caused the left hand (on the stick) to make sympathetic pumping actions also, one could always tell the new boys as they climbed away from take-off in a series of steps .We had all done it. The more recent a/c had instead a single lever only with the hydraulics supplied from an engine-driven pump.
HOW THEY PAID!
Although I could not know it I was the first of the Luton VR lads and the first of my immediate friends to be lost in 1941. Unhappily so many, and most far less fortunate than I, followed my path during the spring and summer of that year. Dad said the weekly columns of the Luton News of that period regularly listed pre-war VRs in the ‘killed and missing' columns.
So many keen, air minded youngsters joined the RAFVR in 1938/39, in the full knowledge that the international situation might well mean their (to them) good fortune in being able to fly RAF a/c, but would one day require a recompense to be paid.
And how they paid! Of the 130 or so pre-war embryo pilots at Luton I have only ever come across 5 other than myself, although I expect there must be a few more somewhere. Fred Whitehorn, badly burned; Ron Parker; Ray North; Goodwin and Arnold Hill who became Chief Brewer with Green's Brewery, these are the only ones I know to survive.
WHAT!!! 50 YEARS SINCE OUR HIKE THROUGH N.W. GERMANY???
Since arriving at Stalag 357 (Fallingbostel) on August 14 1944, life has rapidly become abso-bloody-lutely awful for we ‘gentlemen of the RAF’ (Churchill’s words not mine!). Able to bring with us from Stalag Luft 6 (Memel, Lithuania) via Stalag 355 (Thorn, Poland) only what we could carry, our fags (cigarettes to our American readers - Ed) soon ran short. As they used greatly to deaden the hunger pangs it was not helpful that the supply of one Red Cross food parcel per man weekly also largely dried up. By early March ‘45 we RAF POW ‘old timers’ had gone through the worst winter ever - we even had to admit to those we had b---s-----d for so long that it was worse than 8b at Lamsdorf in 41/42 - and we had been bitter cold, damp and ravenously hungry all the time. My ‘fighting’ weight back home of 10 st 5 lb was now down to a few pounds under 7 st. My main memory is of sitting on the edge of my top *’pit’, fully dressed complete with French greatcoat, gloves and balaclava, studying calculus, strength of materials etc. or painting watercolours.
However, by early March we began to look for warmer weather and the liberation, and when news of the Rhine crossing was afterwards accompanied by rumours of an evacuation, ‘Flip’ Jones and myself each made a haversack from odds and ends and stuffed in our evacuation kit - one each underpants, vest, shirt, wash bag, towel, eating irons, tin plate and a tin mug made from a Tate & Lyle syrup tin - so that, when in mid-March the Hun began to roust us out, with the addition of a 5’ x 3’ cloth laughingly called a blanket, any fags we still had plus whatever non-essentials we could manage, we were ready for the off. Our party of 250 - just one of many - strolled out at about 16.00 and walked until near 01.00. It was great to be out and relatively unfettered by the guards - who by this time were the old, the infirm and the very young - and shortly after dark fell we two, plus three others, attempted to sidle off down a side road but were caught 1 mile away and brought back. Some 15 minutes prior to stopping for the night we all went down flat as a great ball of flame rolled along the ground just fifty yards or so away from us in the field - next day we were told it was a Mossie (Mosquito) and we thought he’d probably been after the six tanks we’d passed a couple of minutes before. We were dunked into some farm barns for the night and just before dawn I went outside for a pee and then stood watching the flickering western sky and listening to the faint thudding from there. A guard of some years joined me and somewhat quixotically I gave him a fag and we stood quietly smoking. To my ‘Das krieg, ist fertig’? (The war is over?) came ‘Ja, alles fertig, alles kaput’ (Yes, everything is over, everything is finished).
There followed days of walking from farm to farm - seemingly haphazardly but edging gradually towards Denmark which was rumoured to be our final destination. There were 250 of us spread over perhaps 1 mile with guards scattered among us and we were all tired, hungry and bloody cold - in fact there was a kind of rapport between the goons (guards) and us for we were all being b------d about. I vividly recall sitting at the side of a ditch one wet morning - six of us vainly trying to roll some of Flip’s Balkan Soubranie pipe tobacco in toilet paper which then had to be licked all over to overcome the porosity. In between we were stripping and reassembling the guard’s machine pistol as he instructed. Some nights we holed up in barns but only too often we slept outside in our inadequate blankets. We froze and I swore I’d never camp again - one resolution I’ve kept!
One of the other down sides was that by day we all suffered from dysentery - one night I went sixteen times - which was most debilitating. I used to walk with the rear coat tails of my French greatcoat buttoned round to the hip (a good design feature!) and reckoned that from the warning stomach churn I could be in the nearest ditch/field/ what have you with trousers down (haversack still on) in ten seconds flat - it was a foolhardy man who risked taking any longer! At any one time there was always someone so employed. Passing through a village one day we saw one of us clearly in extremis asking an old couple at their cottage door for the use of their outside loo. The arrogant shooing off by the archetypal ‘squarehead’ (a slang word used to refer to the Germans) was answered by a swift ‘trousers down’ - ‘trousers up’ and then ‘run like hell’. Between steps one and two the gleaming white flagstones at the front door received a shock from which I doubt it’s recovered yet! Still, it was all good clean (?) fun and we who saw it were much raised in spirit by the sight and sounds of the puce-faced spluttering German gentleman.
We did have a sick-cart with an MO and two or three orderlies - on which the ‘too sick to walk’ were placed but all there was for dysentery was charcoal powder mixed with (floating on) water. Did nowt (nothing) and was awful. On about three occasions we left a party of sick with an orderly to be picked up by the Allies - we hoped. By April the rough living and lack of facilities had overcome our efforts to keep clean and we were filthy. None of us changed clothing for we couldn’t dry anything washed. Our spare we kept, hoping to be able to have a change and a washday sometime. I would guess we were lousy too - or ‘chatty’ as my father would have said in WWI.
About April 20 my knee which, doubtless from all the kneeling on wet ground at cooking fires, had troubled me for a week finally caused me to ask the MO if he had owt (anything) to help and get the answer ‘Only stop here with the sick’. Still he let me put my kit on the cart and once I had cut a thick stick with my friendly goon’s knife I was more or less ready for the day. What a good fairy was on my shoulder that day!! Normally we covered perhaps ten miles a day, but today it was going on for thirty - including a pleasant stroll through the centre of Luneburg where by this time we were far too shattered to attempt to wind up the assembled populace with our call ‘Hier sind der terror fliegern’ (Here are the terror pilots). We were not allowed to rest until well outside the place and next we were walking across Luneburg Heath along rides cut through the woodland. Crashed aircraft had cut swathes through the trees - I should have said that all along our route we came across the sad remains of many of our aircraft and everywhere we looked the trees glistened with caught-up **Window. This had been so since our second day out. At one junction of two rides the whole universe seemed on the move - civilians, service people, men, women and children all going every which way to get home or get to the Western Allies before Uncle Joe (Stalin) could catch them - this was when Joe was still in East Prussia or thereabouts and Monty (Field Marshall Montgomery) a mere forty odd miles away! Quite late we dropped to the floor. Outside - at our camping site next to a small stream I, who had started out empty-handed was by this time carrying kit for Flip and Tex (by this time our third member), and we were all cold, hungry and completely clapped (worn out). But there was straw to find, food to heat and firewood to get. We were wet, the ground was wet, the firewood was wet, there was no straw to be found to go under our blanket and we were undoubtedly p----d off and weary. Luckily next day there was a shortish walk from about 14.00 to fetch up at a school near Elbe at Lauenburg from whence we were roused at 03.30 the next morning to cross the river via a bloody great bridge prepared for demolition with what looked like 500 pounders in wooden boxes - Eddie, who lifted a lid to see, got quite a shock and let the lid go PDQ! We walked S.E. along the banks of the Elbe and rested up alongside it. The three of us stripped off completely and washed at the water’s edge and watched a large barge motoring seaward. Ten minutes later, sitting watching the nude bodies at the edge of the Elbe from some 100 yards away, we cheered four Spits (Spitfires) that came hurtling along the river from southward - and then went violently flat as pancakes as four lots of canon opened up. As they b------d off we sat up to view the horde of pink bums poking out of the Elbe. No-one was hurt - apart from those on the barge, which drifted back past us, smoking like mad. We heard a boy was hurt but in the cynical fashion of those days just said ‘He shouldn’t bloody well have joined’. During the early afternoon we were walking past verges littered with Red Cross marked litter and whilst pondering what this meant found we were passing the only one of our other parties we were to see, fell out on either side and they were all scoffing the RED CROSS PARCELS! Suddenly no longer wet, cold or tired we near galloped into the village where we each collected one Canadian food parcel and 50 Gold Flake fags - and then watched four Tiffies (Hawker Typhoons - Ed) send five salvos of rockets down at some unseen target a mile or so away. ‘That’s given some sod a headache’ said Ted. And so it had. Thirty minutes later all the euphoria of the Canadian chocolate and Messers ***Will’s solace for all gave way to horror and disbelief when we learned the sod was in fact the party we had walked past. Flip and myself lost two very good friends that day.
The food and fags gave a good sense of wellbeing and, as we three found, following Flip’s suggestion, the prunes, eaten boiled, gave quite a relief from the dysentery. Certainly the pains and the frequency were greatly reduced until about two days after we ran out, when both were back in full measure. Eventually we bedded down in some hay barns where we were to spend about five days. Even now I go cold when I recall those rickety old barns with four levels served by a system of Heath Robinson ladders with ****kriegies dug into the hay on all levels with we three on the top floor (some 30 feet up). And in the dark all one could see was a blackness with myriads of glowing fags from ground level up. (Keep the Fire Officer away!).
Unbelievably, the feldwebel i/c (sergeant) of the party had had to ‘phone Berlin for details of each march prior to setting out, and now that contact was lost. Hence our sojourn while he waited for events to make his mind up. The rest from walking did us all good and we managed to get reasonably clean - I stood in the shallows of a lake - in the snow - stark naked, soaping and washing down whilst talking to a young German couple of my own age. It all seemed perfectly natural then.
On 30 April the news that we would that evening march about ten miles to the west where the Allies would then be was greeted with the usual kriegie rude comments, but so it proved to be - our feldwebel had guessed right. Flip, Tex and myself elected not to sleep in the barns we reached - even to our uncritical eyes they were c--p - and elected to sleep on the mound of straw outside. One blanket under all three with little Tex in the middle and with two blankets over we slept fully dressed with boots on but laces loosed. We had the best night’s sleep ever and I woke at 06.00 or thereabouts, deliciously warm, to find we had an inch of snow over us - and we were in fact bedded down on the farm manure heap! It was 1 May and my thoughts did not include a May Queen. Later that day a British Army Captain and sergeant appeared and said we would round up German transport and get back to Luneburg. We spent the next day doing just that and searching POWs from whence I got a 7.62 automatic (March Police now have it). Flip also rounded up three old carving knives we found in a workshop, so with these stuffed down our socks and guns at our waists we felt a little safer - until Flip drove us to lunch with a platoon of Green Howards - he took for ever to get that - drive on the left WRONG - the Sherman which came round the corner on it’s right and stopped a fleas bum from our bonnet RIGHT. The mass of transport at the farm would have served a division. We even had a steam lorry and a swimming truck.
Mid morning on 3 May we set off across the Elbe on a Bailey bridge to reach the large barracks in Luneburg awash with kriegies. And the sheer delight of reasonably cooked hot food and the sheer bliss of HOT water. And then to sleep on a bed with full-size, proper blankets. The next morning we were off again - ten to the back of an army lorry to stop the night at a little village ‘Solingen’ and then the following morning off again westwards to stop at a village, the name of which I’ve forgotten. And then the next day off on the last drive through Germany. We ended up in Emsdetten near the Rheine and were put into a school. We tried the patience of the major i/c by responding to his delivery of Monty’s edict re non-fraternisation with German gels by the clear rather statement that if we could so far recover as to have thoughts in that direction then ‘frat’ we would and then Monty - for all we thought of him - could do unmentionable things with his edict. Having cleared the air there was not much we could do after our meal as it was now dark and the street lighting was non-existent, so it was ‘pit time’ once more. The following day, 7 May, was spent just walking around Emsdetten until near 16.00 when we visited a recreation centre set up in a part of the municipal offices and for some three hours immersed ourselves in magazines and drank lots of tea/coffee. I was stuck into a mass of ‘Illustrated London News’ and from the pictures of ordinary life realising what we had missed for 4 years. I suddenly became aware they were shutting up and I was the only one left. Outside it was like the Black Hole of Calcutta - and which way to go - B------d if I knew. Anyway they say the Devil looks after his own for I set off walking as quietly as I could down the centre of the road with the knife in my left hand and the cocked pistol in my right. Ten minutes later, with no trouble at all, I was at the school - and so to bed.
Sometime around 23.00 we all came violently awake to the sound of heavy and continuous m.g. (machine gun) and small arms fire. Having thrown on some clothes and grabbed our guns we were told the unconditional surrender had been announced and it was all over.
Just after mid-day on 8 May we were driven through the waste brickyard that had been Rheine to the airfield and at around 16.00, Flip and I took the last two places in a 617 Sqn ‘Grand Slam’ Lancaster YZ-C and I have a photo! We landed at Dunsfold and having suffered the DTD spray down each arm and up each trouser leg were taken through into a hanger to be sat at one of many tables, each for ten men and presided over my one of the many women from a multitude of women’s organisation. We had a Wren, and as we ate I like to think we gradually passed one of the more difficult transformations necessary - how to adapt our normal highly imaginative language to suit mixed company. I did say gradually!
Just after dark we were driven to the railway station to board the train to RAF Cosford and went through crowds of wildly celebrating people.
Flip and I sat down in a carriage and immediately, just like blowing out a candle, we went completely brain dead and sat devoid of thought, feeling, awareness or owt else. I had not experienced this before. However, very gradually as the train wended it weary way west of London we came back to this world and sat, speaking very little and smoking a lot.
A mere 4 years overdue, two fighter pilots had at least flown home - if not to base - on VE day.
*’Pit’ - this is slang for the bunk. David had the top one, probably of 3, straw mattress, 1 blanket, freezing cold, and highly likely that the across slats were mostly missing having been used as firewood or shores for an escape tunnel
** Window - Window was the code for the aluminium strips that the bombers dropped to confuse German defensive radar. It was first used during the 1943 raids on Hamburg that produced appalling devastation.
*** ‘Wills’ -Wills made cigarettes, he is referring to the packs of Benson & Hedges found earlier.
**** ‘Kriegies’ Our POWs in Europe called themselves "Kriegies." It's short for the German word for prisoner of war.
(Interview by Ed Gardner and Nicola Price, March 2009.)
Douglas was on holiday in north Wales with his cousin in February 1942 when he had to register for military service.
‘I had to go to a little church hall to register. I stated a preference for the navy. I chose the navy because I liked the sea. It was very popular, the navy; it was the senior service and they were a bit more fussy about who they took! You could get into the navy if you had been in the Boy Scouts and knew semaphore because they were desperately short of signallers. You use flags to do the alphabet. It can be done very fast - up to 12 words a minute. In Nelson’s time the signallers were known as ‘gentlemen of the lower deck’ because you had to be able to read and write and in those days that meant they were the sons of gentlemen.’
He had to report to Skegness and the unlikely site of Butlins Holiday Camp that had been turned into a naval training camp where he was to begin training as a signalman. First impressions were not promising.
‘The first thing they did was line you up in your civvies and an officer came out. He looked as if he was old enough to be my granddad. What he was, was a pensioner and he said, ‘Right, you are a load of stinking civvies and I am going to make you into sailors.’ I thought, ‘Crikey, fancy talking to us like that.’ I was a young 18 and a shy sort of bloke.
‘There were rows and rows of huts built for holiday makers - a couple and 2 children, and each had a double bed and bunk beds. Anyhow, they had 4 sailors in each hut. The sleeping accommodation was bizarre. The double bed had a barrier down the middle that was 3 planks of wood. We called it the ‘walls of Jericho.’
‘Each chalet had a little wash basin with cold water and there was an electric heater that didn’t get very hot. It was a bitter winter and we were absolutely frozen. We were about 50 - 25 metres from the sea and we were in the end chalet and the wind blew across. Some nights we didn’t bother to get undressed, we slept in our clothes. And the toilet arrangements! Of course you had to go outside to the toilet block in the freezing cold. I was brought up in a good home and to go to this was absolutely terrible, but you got used to it. We did drill and went to classes. We learned Morse code and semaphore, coding and special signals for convoys at sea.
‘The afternoon of our passing out parade we were dived -bombed by some Germans. We’d planned to go to a pub for a meal but some of the instructors and other people planning to come had been killed. It was our first experience of death and the meal had a cloud over it.’
After basic training you could you be sent to Portsmouth, Plymouth or Chatham. Douglas was sent to Portsmouth where he waited to be drafted to active service. He soon learned the ropes.
‘The navy was very traditional - steeped in history. For instance, you weren’t allowed to whistle. If you were caught whistling you would be put on a charge. That was because in earlier days a mutiny was started by someone whistling a certain tune. Also, everyone in the navy got a tot of rum and there was a procedure where you had to line up in a certain order. If you were an ordinary seaman you had 2 parts water with your rum, petty officers had one part water and full officers had it neat.’
Some of his friends were lucky and got postings in Britain but Douglas was sent to Freetown in Sierra Leone. He was warned that it was a terrible place. They called it ‘the white man’s grave’ because of the extreme heat.
‘We set off with our kit bag and our hammocks. Each sailor had a rolled up hammock to carry. Inside were 2 blankets and a thin mattress. There were hooks in the deck head (ceiling) and we slung our hammocks from these. They were very comfortable. As the ship rolled the hammock swung gently.
Most of us were terribly homesick. We’d had embarkation leave and said goodbye to our mums and dads, brothers and sisters. Africa seemed like the other side of the world. There was talk of torpedoes and I must admit that I was frightened.
One good thing though was that signalmen had the privilege of going up onto the bridge with the officers. You could see what was going on - much better than being a stoker down below.
‘We were with a convoy, mostly troop ships but there was an aircraft carrier with us. It was quite a sight - 50 ships all steaming along together. Troop convoys would go very fast so they could outrun submarines.’
Freetown proved to be quite an experience.
‘There was nothing at Freetown, just a few corrugated iron huts and a jetty. For accommodation we had an old Union Castle liner called the Edinburgh Castle. It had been converted into barracks. The accommodation was worse than Skegness. The engine had been taken out and it was just a hulk. The food was pretty grim and there were rats. Going ashore was interesting. It was so hot that shore leave was only from about 12 until 5 o’clock. I was so fed up I only went once. Some of the sailors used to get drunk. That was an experience. The men were so drunk they had to be thrown into the boat like a sack of potatoes. There was a beer called Black Horse that was twice as strong as any other beer. They were dragged down to the mess deck and they slept it off on the deck or a table. They couldn’t get into their hammocks.’
After 2 or 3 weeks in Freetown Douglas was given another interesting job. Some of the Frenchmen who had been rescued from Dunkirk had formed a Free French Navy. He was about to join them.
‘I was told I would be drafted to the Commandant Drogou. I asked an officer what that was and he said it was a Free French ship - a flower class corvette - and the best of bloody luck! I thought, ‘Oh, crikey. What have they done now?’
It was a boat specially designed to escort convoys - not a big boat. The crew were all French with about 6 Brits on board. One of these was the liaison officer and he spoke fluent French. The idea was that the French could work with English ships because they had English signalmen on board. It was so unusual. Discipline was nil and the French didn’t really like us. The first day I was on board there was a knife fight. I asked this English chap who was helping me with my baggage what was going on and he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry about them. Their bark is worse than their bite.’ They had 3 sailors from New Caledonia on board. That was an island in the Pacific and they were Polynesian. They took a shine to us. They were our bodyguard!’
Food on board the ship was bad but it soon became worse.
‘The refrigerator broke down and they couldn’t get it fixed so they decided to take livestock to sea. They got a pig, a crate stuffed with chickens and 3 - 4 goats. They tied the pig up and it fouled the deck all the time. The cook was an albino Polynesian and a most uncouth man. One day he plonked 4 dead chicken in front of us and said, ‘You no pluck, you no eat.’ When the chickens were dished up they were just cut in half, right down the head and body. He couldn’t be bothered to cut the head off. We got fed up with this and lived off cornflakes and condensed milk for days.’
Another interesting experience took place when Douglas was on watch. It was very early in the morning and pitch black.
‘One of the lookouts called that there was a ship, so we flashed it a message in code. There was no reply. We flashed again, 3 or 4 times. Still no reply. So someone rang down to the captain to say there was an unidentified ship. We were called to action stations. The captain came up and decided to fire star shells which would light up the sky so we could see the ship. There was a bang. They’d only opened the wrong box and were firing live ammunition! Finally one of the English chaps picked up an SOS message. A ship was being fired on by an enemy ship. I said, ‘Oh yes, that’s us!’ They fired about 5 rounds of live ammunition before they found a star shell. Then the ship - it was only a small merchant ship started flashing back. It was a friendly ship and we all went on our way. If that had happened on an English ship people would have been court -martialled but they just laughed and joked about it.’
In 1943 Douglas came back to England after convoying for about 15 months plying from Gibraltar and south to Pointe Noire on the west coast of Africa.
‘The ship was returning for a re-fit. It was British built by Harland Wolfe in Northern Ireland. A re-fit was usually done every year or so to bring it up to date with the latest equipment that had been developed during the war.’
Douglas says it was exciting arriving back in the UK, meeting family and friends again but he was upset to hear about various friends who had been killed whilst in the forces or in air-raids. He remarks that his time abroad was very interesting, being on a French ship and learning how the Allies could cooperate in times of war. ‘One has to experience serving under these circumstances to appreciate what it was like.’
The ship was due for a fairly lengthy re-fit so the most of the French and British crew were drafted for disposal to other ships and establishments. Douglas was drafted to combined operations. This unit was to establish signal stations when assault troops landed during an invasion. He was posted to India and Burma and took part in the re-capture of Rangoon in May 1944.
He eventually retuned to the UK and was de-mobbed in May 1946.
(Interview by Zoe Farrell and Aaron Sparrow, February 2009.)
Mr Downing was just 20 when he set out to be part of what was to become one of the major deciding factors in allied victory. On the 5th June 1944 Mr Downing, who was part of the Tank Corp (22nd Dragoons), woke up to find that he was going to board the ship on the way to the D-Day invasion in Normandy.
‘Just before the invasion we were sent to Gosport outside Southampton. We had a few days of freedom and then everything stopped - we weren’t allowed out. They waterproofed our tanks by putting cordite on them and on the back they put a great big funnel so the water couldn’t get into the engine. It was important that the tanks did not land in more than 7 foot of water. It took about a fortnight to do the waterproofing and everything. The tanks were in effect mine-sweepers, fitted with heavy chains and balls. A rotating drum made the balls flail the ground with a force of 300lbs, thus exploding any mines.
On the Friday before the landings we were escorted to Southampton Water. Our tank had to be covered because it was a secret weapon. We knew what we had to do but not when or where we would land.
On Monday when we awoke we were passing the Needles, on the Isle of Wight, so we knew it was the real thing then.’
However, terrible weather halted proceedings and D-Day was postponed for 24 hours, but Mr Downing and his regiment were left on the flat-bottomed ship in the rough waters, anxiously waiting for the day ahead:
‘They passed around anti seasickness pills. The further we went, the rougher it became, and we all soon found out that the anti- seasickness pills didn’t work. I was so seasick that I think that if the Germans said, ‘Come this way sonny’, I would have said, ‘yes, ok’. The adrenaline kicked in once we landed, but before that I couldn’t think about anything else. The captain of the ship, a New Zealander, was sick. Everyone was sick.
‘Through the night we had to observe strict wireless silence and in the early hours, about 4 o’ clock, all the wireless operators tuned in suddenly. Some time after this all the ships opened up. There were battleships, rocket ships, cruisers - everything. We were given orders to take our place. I was thinking, please may we land in less than 7 feet of water. As it happens, we did land in shallow water. The commander gave an order and a lever was pressed and we moved forward. It was 7.45 am.
‘We began to flail immediately. We were only gone a few yards when there was a blinding flash and the turret filled with smoke. I thought that was the end of us but the commander had given orders to blow the cordite to remove the waterproofing on the tank as with it on the engine would have overheated’.
Mr Downing landed on the Normandy coast at Juno beach with the Canadian forces. There was a small village called Grave-sur-Mer just in land from the beach. The 22nd Dragoons were supposed to clear the way for the Winnipeg Rifles who would follow behind.
‘The idea was that we flailed a safe lane and then moved aside so ordinary armoured vehicles could go through in our tracks. We hit several mines. Every time you hit a mine you lost several links in the chain. If you hit enough mines you lost the chains and then of course if you hit a mine you blew up.
‘The tank commander saw a church in the distance and thought that there may be Germans in it, which we later found out there was. I was ordered to hit it, which I did and got several direct hits. As I waited to receive further orders I turned around to see that the tank commander, Sergeant Upson, was hit in the face by something, probably shrapnel and was bleeding heavily. I handed him a field dressing and he went to get medical help but the strap on his gaiter got stuck on the ring that held the turret in place. I undid his gaiter and he struggled off.’
Mr Downing did not see him for months afterwards, but thankfully he survived.
‘We came to a steep ridge, the front end of the tank went up in the air and we came straight down on a mine. The track was shattered and we couldn’t move. We were stuck there under fire. So, there we were in a crippled tank, no commander just the wireless operator, the driver and me. At the tender age of 20 and a few days, I had never seen a dead person. But I certainly made up for it that day. Each time I looked out I saw a dead Canadian with a wireless set stuck to him. Antenna stuck out. There with his mouth wide open.
‘After a while things quietened down and I noticed the spare water tank had been hit and water was leaking out of it. I thought that rather than just letting it waste away I would have a quick wash. Then someone called out ‘snipers’ and I jumped back in the tank. If there was a record for doing this quickly I’m sure I would be the holder of it.’
Mr Downing then described his experiences in the evening.
‘We made our way to the beach. What a sight of burning vehicles everywhere, the dead and wounded lying around, wrecked ships stranded on the beach. The darkness fell and the Luftwaffe, which we hadn’t seen all day, came down and bombed the beaches all night. We found a cemetery and sheltered behind graves never realising that the safest place was probably in the tank’.
Being a highly religious man, Mr Downing always kept the bible with him. In fact he read it so much that he was nicknamed Bishop by his comrades: ‘I certainly felt that God was watching over me. The regiment was known as the ‘funnies’ because no-one at the war office expected us to survive. No provision of food was made for us.’
Mr Downing did not get home until August the following year as after D-Day he was moved onto Belgium, Holland and Palestine. Yet, it is clear that the end of the war did not bring him jubilation. His sergeant was killed the day before the war ended, therefore leaving him in a mixed state of grief over the death of a comrade and the happiness that the war was over. He summed up his experiences on that day:
‘D-Day has since been named the ‘longest day’, it certainly was for me.’
Mr Downing returned to the town in Normandy only a few years ago for the D-Day 50+ ceremony. When visiting, he found himself re-acquainted with a man named Roland, who at the time of the attack was with his mother in the church which Mr Downing was ordered to hit. However, there were no bad feelings and Roland now sends Mr Downing Christmas cards every year.
Most coincidently, however, when returning again for the D-Day 60+ celebrations they met again. Mr Downing was given a photograph of a little girl when he took part in the landings in 1944 and he had later given this photo to Roland. Whilst at a ceremonial dinner, he asked Roland if he still had it. Roland said he had and went to fetch it from his car. When he asked around the room if this woman still lived in the town, the woman that had been acting as a host to Mr Downing and his daughter during their stay came forward. She could not understand why Mr Downing had a picture of her a small child, but was amazed to hear what had happened.
(Interview by Alex Brook, November 2008.)
I was in the army for 8 years and 256 days.
I joined the Territorial Army with 7 comrades on the 1st March 1938 because my local army barracks had a very good billiard table and bar. When war was declared me and my comrades were alarmed because we had joined up mainly to play billiards!
In 1939 I was sent to France with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) as part of the 4th Battalion of the Royal East Kent Regiment to hold back the advancing German forces. It was the first battalion to land in France. The battle raged through France until we came to the episode of Dunkirk. My squad was one of the last out of France. As the troops came into Dunkirk some were appointed to the defensive shield round the outer perimeter of Dunkirk and I was one of them. This was to allow the troops to escape from the beaches. When the signal came for us to leave it was too late to get on the boats and we were told to get out the best way we could. We decided to go up the coast and came across a Renault car. We managed to get it going and all piled in. We finally escaped from the port of Le Havre on the last destroyer leaving occupied France. Only a quarter out of the 800 in my battalion got away.
When I came home there was no stopping. We were re-trained and re-equipped and were then sent to Malta where I was part of the defence of the island during the siege. If we had lost Malta we would have lost control of the whole of the Mediterranean. It was a wonderful combined effort by the navy, army and air force. I had a job servicing Spitfires. For my efforts during this campaign I received the Maltese George Cross. The George Cross is the highest medal in the land except for the Victoria Cross.
The Battle of Malta was over and we moved on again to North Africa where, to my surprise, I became part of Sir Winston Churchill’s 234 commando brigade. Our objective was to capture the Aegean Islands just off the coast of Turkey. I was on HMS Eclipse on the way to the Aegean Islands when it struck a mine and the front end of the ship was blown up. Hundreds of the lads were drowned but I had had a tip that there were lots of mines in the sea and it was safest to stay at the stern of the boat so I survived. I took my heavy clothing off, climbed onto the railings and managed to get hold of a cork life belt. There was a young fellow sitting on the railings and he was screaming. He’d been blinded by the blast and I could do nothing for him. That haunts me even today. In those circumstances the golden rule is every man for himself; so I jumped. I didn’t realise it was 60 feet above the water. I hit the sea with a wallop. There were hundreds and hundreds of lads around me badly burned. The whole sea was on fire. I had a bit of common sense and realised I had to get out of there as quick as I could so I swam and swam for 5 hours and was finally picked up just as dawn was breaking. I was in hospital for a bit and then rejoined my own unit.
A powerful battle took place and I was captured by a German commando and put on a ship bound for Athens. From there we were loaded onto a cattle truck and transported right across Europe to Germany and a hard labour camp in Leipzig. On that journey, 3,000 of the lads died.
I survived the labour camp right through to the end of the war. At this point myself and 4 of my comrades decided to escape. It was a terrible night and the German guards didn’t like standing out in the pouring rain. We got under the wire and made a run for it. The objective was to make it to the American 8th Army at Gera which was south of Leipzig. We travelled only at night sleeping during the day. Half way, we lost one of the fellows. He was so ill we had to leave him. We were almost at the end of our tethers. We had no food and our clothes were in rags, but then we came to a road and saw an American tank. A couple of G.I.s came racing out thinking we were Germans so we put our hands up and started shouting that we were British POWs. They took us in charge. I was in a terrible state. I had tuberculosis and weighed 3 stone. They were so kind to us. They moved us to another American base and I was flown straight back to England.
On arrival in England I was placed immediately into an army hospital to recover. However I did not. My injuries and experiences, such as the labour camp, were severe and preventing a full recovery. So the doctors decided to take a sample from my lung to investigate why. When they did this they found diesel oil from the boat that sunk in the bottom of my lung! After intensive treatment I made a recovery back to full health. I had 8 years in hospital altogether.
I was discharged from the forces in Dover Castle in Kent, and was given a pension of £2 a week to live on, so I came home but was still very ill. After a few days my mother suggested that I go and visit relations in London, so I did. I went and stayed with them for a few days and whilst I was there I met a girl called Ruby. Ruby worked in Sainsbury’s and everybody knew her. Within 3 months of meeting her we were married. She cared for me and got me back to full health.
(Interview by Lynda Abbott, November 2011.)
I was in the second intake at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School. I lived in South Hill Road at the time. I passed the scholarship from Bury Mill End School. There were 15 scholarship places for the whole Hemel Hempstead area each year and the other pupils paid to go to the school. I didn’t see much of a gap between the scholarship pupils and the others. I was very happy there. Discipline was strict but I was a good boy! I loved the sports facilities and played cricket and football. I was the captain of Salisbury House. My duties were mainly in the sports field and I occasionally read the lesson from the Bible at morning assembly. I would choose the teams and help organise sports day. My favourite subjects were maths and science. I got the maths prize for my year. The quality of teaching was first class.
I left school at 16 in May 1937 and joined the Post Office. The first thing I did when war broke out in 1939 was join the Home Guard that was formed in Hemel Hempstead. We didn’t do a lot! We used to have weekly meetings and go out there and march up and down a lot. We did some firing practice. We weren’t well equipped but did get guns eventually. It was very much like ‘Dads Army.’
I put my name forward to join the RAF and started my training in 1941. I was 19 and they were generally calling people up at 20. My father was a little concerned, having suffered in the First World War. I volunteered to be a pilot in the RAF. America was not in the war at that time but they had volunteered to train pilots and I was one of those called over to Georgia for flying training. Our (UK) facilities for training were hard- pressed and couldn’t cope with the numbers who had to be trained to replace those who’d been killed. It seemed a good idea to have them trained in a safe place. Because they were still on a peacetime basis they set much higher standards than the RAF had and that was a bone of contention. It was a bit of a disaster. Out of a class of 90 they failed 50 odd for various reasons. I was one of them because I got airsick when spinning which was something the RAF trainees didn’t do. I always intended to be a bomber pilot not a fighter (so would have been unlikely to have been involved in spinning anyway). I was very disappointed. I was sent back via Canada to the UK and trained as a radar mechanic which I then was throughout the war.
Radar was quite new in those days and it was a question of looking after equipment, mending it and setting it up for the radar stations in the UK. Radar operators used to man the machines all day long and mechanics were there if things went wrong, which they did. There was a fair bit of mechanical training and I was mostly in East Anglia which was where most of the stations were. The radar job was interesting but I would much rather have been flying planes. However, I know I was safer and I’m sure my parents were very relieved. You had no choice anyway. You had to do what they told you!
They were short of people overseas and the Burma war was one of the outstanding centres so I got sent to India and then on to Burma where I remained until after the war finished. I was discharged in 1946. It was easy to work there in some ways because the local Indian staff tended to do all the manual jobs and it was much the same in Burma. So in some ways we were quite privileged.
We didn’t see a lot of real action because the radar stations tended to be back a bit, not right on the front line. We didn’t know the intimate details of what was going on (on the front line) but we were aware of the horrors that some of our colleagues were going through, especially the army. We were very aware of the Burma railway and the way POWs were being treated. I thought the Japanese were dreadful at that time. I knew someone at school, Bob Bowers, who was a Prisoner of War in Japanese hands. He told a story of POWs being lined up and executed. The executioners were getting along the road towards him and then they suddenly stopped and he survived. But I didn’t have any direct contact with the Japanese.
I stood the heat fairly well. It wasn’t much of a problem. I didn’t really enjoy my time there but I was aware that certain people in the family and around me were having a much worse time than I was. I was in the Far East for 3 years. That was the length of an overseas tour. We didn’t have any leave during that time and letters from home were terribly important.
When I came back (to the UK) I went back in the Post Office with the intention of making the Civil Service my career. I was very lucky and got quite a lot of promotion and I finished up as Head of Personnel of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre in Swansea.
(Interview by Rosie Hoskins, Ashley Needs-Mayos and Mr J Ross, June 2011.)
What were your experiences of war like?
I didn’t see any action. We were in the zones. The ship never fired in anger. We were only patrolling – that’s all we were doing. I was in the Fleet Air Arm. The ship I was on was HMS Venerable – an aircraft carrier- and we were doing sorties – just patrols. We never fired in anger at all.
Would you have preferred to be fighting – in action?
I joined the Navy in ’43 when things were getting a little bit better.
Can you tell us something about what life was like aboard an aircraft carrier?
We had all the facilities. We had Chinese people on board and they did our washing and ironing and aircraft carriers were the only ships that had bakers aboard and we used to bake our own bread. We always had a destroyer with us and we used to supply them with bread and we had white bread. You civilians only had brown bread and wheat meal bread. Aboard an aircraft carrier it was more like a hotel really. The only thing was we didn’t have beds – we had hammocks. We had a hammock every night and in the morning we had to lash it down and store it.
Was it a friendly experience –did you get on with everyone on the ship?
You had to be friendly. You were all ship mates. It didn’t pay to get nasty with anyone – it was one big family.
What kind of aircraft were on the ship and how did they operate?
We had Seafires – they were fighters – we had Barracudas – they were torpedo carriers – we had American Corsairs. The majority of the pilots were Kiwis – New Zealanders – and Canadians as well. They were good. Me being a steward, I was looking after them. I was like a batman – an army batman.
What did your duties consist of?
I think I had three pilots to look after – lay their clothes out, make sure their room was clean and tidy, make their beds and, when they came into the wardroom, you took a menu and they told you what they wanted and then you went to the counter to get what they wanted and you took it to them.
What were your thoughts about the enemy – what were your worries and fears?
We didn’t like to know that we had to kill someone but we knew it had to be done. We never had to fire in anger but we would have done it if it needed to be done. What amazes me now is that I was out in the Pacific fighting the Japanese and I’m driving a Japanese car. Doesn’t make sense does it? Except time has passed – memories fading perhaps.
In an aircraft carrier did you feel very vulnerable to submarines?
Yes. We were. Although we never fired in anger, we were always at action stations when we were on patrol. When the Japanese surrendered we were at sea and we were going in to Sydney Harbour and we had the radio on and we could hear the people in Sydney all going mad. We thought we would get ashore and we didn’t. They turned us round and we had to sail to Hong Kong because they thought the Japanese were going to shoot all the prisoners. We had to go up the Malayan Straits and that was all mined. We had minesweepers in front, sweeping, and the marines were on the flight deck popping the mines off and we were wearing our life jackets all the time. And when we went into Hong Kong we had a battalion of marines aboard and they went ashore and some of our sailors were trained to go ashore. There wasn’t any trouble anyway.
Did you prefer it to the Pacific?
It was more or less the same. You were sweating all the time and if you can imagine what a steel ship is like – it’s like a hot house all the time. We wore our shorts and nothing else.
Did you never go on the mainland? Did you spend your entire time on the ship?
The only time was when we got shore leave returning to Sydney. The chap that I palled up with had relations in Sydney.
Do you have particularly fond memories of your time in the service?
Not really. I was doing a job. We had a job to do and that was it.
Did you feel a strong sense of duty to your country?
That’s why I volunteered because you were born in a country and you had to fight for your country.
Was there a reason for volunteering for the Navy?
I had a twin brother – he died a few years ago. He joined the Navy first and he was on HMS Ceylon. And my father said to me, “Why don’t you join the Navy?” And you know what he said to me – he said, “I think you’re yellow.” I never thought of joining the forces – I was having a good time in civvy street. But when my father said that, I went straight to the recruiting office and joined.
How old were you?
Seventeen and a half. I went in at seventeen and a half; I came out when I was twenty two so I went in as a lad and came out as a man. It was an experience anyway and I saw the world and it didn’t cost me a penny. I joined the submarine depot ship and I thought – in Holy Loch where the Polaris submarines are – and it was quite nice up there but I thought this is not for me so I put in for a draft and I got drafted within six weeks and I got drafted to a squadron that was just forming up and I went to HMS Blackcat in Warrington - shore-based. We were formed up there and when they got everyone – that is all the ground staff – we moved to the Orkney Islands and it was winter and I’ve never seen snow like it. You know Nissan huts – well we went to bed one night and when we went to get out of the hut the next morning we were absolutely snowed in and we were there – we were supposed to be forming up training - for, I think, about two months and we couldn’t do a thing. We had corned beef and biscuits dropped to us by aircraft because nothing could get into the Orkney Islands. Anyway, we got over that and we went to Scapa and picked up the aircraft carrier and then we did a few trials and we went from there to Gibraltar, then to Malta With an aircraft carrier, they always drop the aircrew and the aircraft ashore and they do a bit of training. We were in Malta for quite some time and then we left Malts and sailed for Ceylon and went to Tricomalee – that’s a big naval base there and we were there for some time. Then we sailed from there to Sydney and that’s where we stopped. We operated out of there all the time until the end of the war. I believe HMS Venerable was sold to the Argentines and I’m told she was used in the Falklands against us – or they were hoping to use it but they couldn’t get out anyway. I’m told now that it’s scrapped. It’s like all the big ships now – they don’t want to know do they?
Do you have any more recollections of experiences on the aircraft carrier?
There was one pilot – he was flying a Seafire – and he hit the deck and swung round. There were two blokes in a gun position – he went over and they lost their eyes. That’s put down to an accident in training. We had another one when we were up in Scotland – they used to do dummy torpedo runs – they were concrete blocks and this particular pilot – it was a Barracuda and they had a pilot, an observer and a gunner– and this pilot and observer were the two officers I used to look after and I was very friendly with the gunner - and they went straight into the sea. I don’t know what happened. And that was it. I have been up in an aircraft and landed on an aircraft carrier – I have had that experience. The Yankee carriers are like hotels and these two carriers that they’re building, they’re going to have everything on them like the Yanks. They’ll have shops, cinemas and what have you. But what’s the good of that when we haven’t got any aircraft? I’m very against this government and this country at the moment because this country is in the same state we were in 1939. Anyone can walk in here and take it over. We wouldn’t have a chance. All the troops that should be in this country are fighting in other countries. That’s my opinion anyway. Anyone can walk into this country. We couldn’t defend ourselves. I was only a youngster in 1939 – I’d just left school but we had nothing. The only army we had was the Terriers and they went into France – the British Expeditionary Force – and they got chucked out at Dunkirk. I think we were very, very lucky. And another thing is, “Are they still teaching History in schools?” You talk to some youngsters and they don’t know about Dunkirk, they don’t know about the Second World War, they don’t know about the First World War which was going to be a war that would end wars. You’ve never had wars anyway but there’s always somebody wants to come in and take over. I’m 86 now; if I go tomorrow, I’ve had a good time.
(Interview by Sophie Horwood, November 2008.)
Mr Skeates volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment.
‘I volunteered in December ‘44. So we did the December fitness test which was at Hardwick Hall in Lincolnshire. When you finished with it you was A1+. That means you finished with and different tests and route marches and everything to see whether you are fit enough for the route marches and everything so when you passed you go to Ringway which is an airport outside Manchester.
You had to do eight jumps to qualify. That was three from a balloon - that was a captive balloon - that was two jumps and one night jump. That was war time so you had bonfires in different fields so you knew when you came down. As you came down with the chute you couldn’t see the ground because it comes up so dark.
‘Anyway that was three from the captive balloon. Then you had five from a Dakota which was jumping through the door. When you jump out with the chute these lines break and the chute opens and then closes and then opens again and that’s the signal to pull your webbing down and you’ve got control of the silk canopy then and you put your legs together and as you hit the ground you twist together onto your side and that breaks and that’s equivalent to a fifteen foot jump - fifteen foot from a wall. There’s quite a few people break their ankles doing it!
‘After that I was stationed at Larkhill, a big military camp and I joined the 13th Battalion as an infantryman. I was there for about three weeks. Then the chaps went because they were going to drop over the Rhine on the last offensive up to the Ruhr and up to the Baltic. Being as I could drive a motor car or a lorry I was ordered on to the MT - Motor Transport line - so they took me out of the infantry and put me onto motor transport. So with the infantry dropping on the Rhine, transport had to be ready to re-supply them because when they dropped they only had limited ammunition. Having crossed the Channel we went by land to the DZ*. The six-tonners went to the other side of the Rhine and then we pushed ourselves up through the German lines with the Americans one side and us the other.’
After D-Day, Mr Skeates was part of the late 1944 operations in North West Germany.
‘I was with the operation code named Varsity. That was the task of the Battalion - to clear and hold ground. After we crossed the Rhine, I went up to Osnabruck. We went up to the Elbe. The instructions for the Brigade were to get up to the Baltic as fast as we could so we were in the fore there. Our orders were to push up to the Baltic because the Russians were pushing from the east; they were pushing towards Berlin which they reached. We thought they wanted occupation of Germany because they wanted the machinery of Germany in the Ruhr and everything - the factories which, I believe after the war they stripped and shipped back to Russia. And our orders were to get up to the Baltic and occupy the land and we did it but myself, I got dysentery - I must have had some dirty water or something.
‘The Russians wanted to go further west and occupy Denmark so they could have an outlet to the Atlantic. So our Brigade Commander said they would send in the Typhoons which was our answer to tanks. The Typhoon was our most successful RAF anti-tank destroying aircraft. They swallowed and they stopped advancing. So that’s why the Russians didn’t take Denmark.
‘We were mechanised then. There were several clashes. We were with the Armoured Brigade and on one side were the Americans. There was an engagement going on when I was there - I was on the front line there. The 6th Airborne were going up and they were meeting young kids (the Germans were recruiting very young soldiers at this point). The Doctor and the Padre encountered German opposition - an anti-tank gun - it was manned by these youngsters. But luckily the Doctor and the Padre went forth and they talked them into surrender. The war ended as we met the Russians. As we went up three German generals surrendered to our Headquarters. They were retreating from the Russians.’
Mr Skeates was then transferred to the Far East.
‘When the 6th Airborne came back they were going to drop on and invade Malaya and Singapore which was the Japanese High Command. We were then 5th Independent Brigade and we were going to drop on the Causeway (the road link between Singapore Island and the mainland) while the seaborne landing was going at sea just up the coast. The Causeway had to be taken and held because Singapore itself had a large number of Japanese units. What we had to do was to stop the Japanese coming out so we set sail from Bombay. They put us on a troop ship and changed our equipment from khaki to green for the jungle.
‘I was doing a guard duty at the Raffles Hotel which was the Headquarters of the Japanese South-East Command and I had a few hours in hand and I went to see if I could find some watches and some pistols. I did find something. I saw a roughly made box. I opened it with my bayonet and there were shavings inside and soda things and they were uncut diamonds and I never realised it! As a young chap of only 19 I thought diamonds were things that glittered, polished! More than likely they were being packed up to go back with some general to Japan.’
‘We were in charge of Japanese prisoners. They were all in a camp but we took about 20 of them and had them doing different jobs, doing guard duty around houses and on the docks - there was a lot of stuff that got looted. There was a black market.
‘Then orders came to go to Batavia, Java. In Djakarta, the Dutch internees - women and children - were trying to get to Batavia to get out of the country. The Indonesian nationalists were taking the Japanese arms and causing us trouble and they were killing the Dutch and the Japanese. So we had to go in there, making a strongpoint in a monastery and then we would go into the jungle and bring them out and ship them out so they could go back to civilisation. We had to leave there to come back to Singapore because the Dutch were coming back. The natives were literally crying to see us go. They didn’t want a return to Dutch colonialism. The 13th were the last out and as we went we heard a battle going on behind us.
‘Then they told us we had to go to fight the communists in Siam (Thailand) but we never did. I got Malaria and when I went back to the East Yorks in June 1948 I was sent to the Millbank military hospital; then I was put in Richmond Park for rehabilitation.
‘Then the camp was being prepared for the 1948 London Olympics and I volunteered for a PE display and that kept me going until I was demobbed.’
Mr Skeates was awarded many medals including the Defence, France and Germany, and South East Asia medals. Mr Skeates took part in the following operations:
'Varsity' - Over the Rhine; Germany to the Baltic.
'Zipper'- Far east seaboard landing in Malaya and Singapore.
'Pounce' - Singapore to Java, Batavia and Semarang.
* Drop zone
(Interview by Fiona Wright and Pippa Carr, June 2011.)
I volunteered when I was 17 and went into the navy in November 1942. The reason I volunteered was that everyone was being conscripted into the army, navy or air force; well I thought it was my choice so I thought I would jump the gun and get in early. I wanted to go to sea and see the world, you know, but I was sent to a shore base, HMS Collingwood in Hampshire. I did my initial training there for 3 months and then I thought, ‘Oh good, now for the big ships.’ I joined the navy because I like my bed! We carried our beds around with us all the time - a hammock! I didn’t want to sleep in ditches or under canvas. I was sea sick in the early days. In a small craft the boat is going up and down all the time and if you’re looking at the horizon it does make you feel queasy some of the time. You get over it in time.
There were good times, going on shore with the lads, though I was a boy seaman for much of the time so had to be back on board by 10pm. The older men (aged 21) could have all night passes. You didn’t get your rum tot until you were 21.*
The D-Day landings
I was trained as a coxswain on board LCAs (Landing Craft Assault). We did landings in different places in England to practise for a couple of years - Clacton, Poole in Dorset, The Isle of Wight, Hayling Island. It was different shorelines you had to get used to. We were on small craft - LCAs. On board there was a coxswain, 2 seamen, 2 stokers and a gunner but we used to carry about 30 army men when we were making a landing.
We didn’t know any details in advance (about the D-day landings). It was kept very, very secret. We knew it was going to happen but didn’t know the exact date until about 24 hours beforehand.
In 1944, 6th June I went over to Normandy. I was on 503 Landing Craft. I landed on Juno beach with the Winnipeg Rifles at 8 o’ clock in the morning, having left our sister ship at about 7 am. I was in the first wave. I was a bit nervous because I was steering the boat. You go in very slowly and as soon as you feel the bottom you start putting it into reverse and that holds you just long enough to drop the ramp and get them ashore.
Juno beach was a very level straight beach; very sandy, but they had a lot of shore defences. There were lots of bangs. The navy was firing shells over our heads and there were big armaments on the beach head. We were fired on as we were going in. Even some of the bigger craft were turned over with the explosions and because they had mines on the beach. They had big ‘scaffold’ poles on the beach with mines attached, so if you touched one of these .....! The sea was very choppy so you had to be a bit careful. You didn’t want to end up on one of those scaffold poles. All I had was a .38 Colt revolver - that was really small arms. I don’t think I would have been able to hit anything with it. We had a small Bren gun on the back of the LCA. The soldiers were all armed, however. The Canadians went in with fixed bayonets and knives. They meant business.
It was marvellous when I looked around. There were thousands of ships, all shapes and sizes, the invasion fleet, it was. Amazing sight! We went back and got more people. I can’t remember how many times, but quite a few. It was a big responsibility. I was responsible for the lives of all the people on the craft and I was only 19. In Combined Operations we were the forerunners of the SBS (the Special Boat Service), the navy equivalent of the SAS.
We took the beachhead and went into canvas tents. I was there until August. We had shelling every night from Le Harve landing on our tents and there were a lot of injuries from shrapnel. I was lucky.
They had a roll of old merchant ships called the gooseberry harbour. Prior to having mulberry harbours they sunk merchant ships and made a temporary harbour for small craft such as us. We were billeted there for some time whilst we were taking supplies and such stuff ashore. I didn’t advance on into France because I was in the navy. I was glad about that.
I went back on the 50th anniversary in 1994 and got a medal from Mrs Mitterrand (the wife of the President)
The Far East
I was disappointed that I wasn’t on the big ships but I did get there eventually. In August we came back to the UK and picked up an LST* in November 1944. We commissioned it off the American navy and picked it up in Scotland. It had an LCT (Landing Craft Tank), the smaller tank carrying craft on our decks and we went out there to India, to Cochin, and they launched that off the side. They let the ship roll over onto its side and it just slid off. Then we went up to Rangoon in Burma taking supplies to the army and bringing back POWs and suchlike. This must have been about December 44. Then I went back to general service in the big ships. HMS Sussex was a First World War cruiser. We did bombardments down in Java and then went to Darwin in Australia. The Dutch East Indies were having a bit of trouble and we were helping them out. I always wanted to travel and Normandy wasn’t far enough for me. I think I preferred the Far East.
Singapore was an experience. We had a kamikaze attack in the straits of Malaya. It was frightening but luckily he had unloaded all his bombs before he hit us so it was just structural damage he did. It was just on the port side. We had guns going to bring him down but he made a straight line for us.
HMS Sussex was the first ship into Singapore harbour after the surrender (of the Japanese) and we did the guard of honour for Lord Mountbatten when he accepted the surrender and the keys (of Singapore) from the Japanese. The Japanese were still there when we got to Singapore. In fact we had quite a few Japanese POWs that we used to help load up different things (on the ships).
There wasn’t much damage (in Singapore). We went ashore a few times but we were quite busy. We had to load the ship with things like LSTs. We took supplies up to Bangkok and such places. We didn’t have much to do with the civilian population. We were on the ship on our own more or less.
I like hot weather so the heat didn’t bother me and you didn’t have to do anything too strenuous apart from painting the ship or something like that. We had films on the fo’c’stle (the front of the ship). We got chairs to sit out there and they put up a big screen. The food was pretty good. We had a hot breakfast in the morning - tomatoes or beans on toast were common. The main meal was midday and we had tea in the evening, a couple of pieces of bread and butter with jam and a piece of cake and cups of tea.
The Burma Campaign
The Burma campaign was nasty. We didn’t have much to do with the actual fighting but we did do a landing at Rangoon. The fighting was going on further inland. We took some of the POWs who had been working on the Burma Railway. They were suffering from malaria, dysentery and other tropical diseases and starving. It made us feel angry and even a bit cruel to the Japanese POWs. When loading the ships they had planks up and we would put big bags of rice on their shoulders. Just for devilment we would jump on the planks and make them lose their balance - just for spite you know. They were different altogether to us in those days. I think they were very uncivilised people. Whereas today they are civilised. It’s a different world now.
We were in the Straits of Malaya when the A bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We heard it on the wireless and we all cheered. It brought the end of the war closer. I think the Japanese would have hung on for quite a while after without it. We were getting a bit fed up of being out there. It was months after the European war ended.
The Victory Parade
I came back to England in 1945 and my port base was Portsmouth. I went into barracks there for about a year. During that time I was sent for training to take part in the big victory parade through London in July 1946. That was a great day! We marched from Hyde Park Corner down Oxford Street, through Trafalgar Square and up to the Mall. The crowds were cheering.
I was demobbed in August 1946. I was 22. It (serving in the navy) was a good experience and it learnt me discipline which I think a lot of the youngsters could do with today. It was a good life for a young man.
* Landing Ship Tank - a US navy ship class
** Men serving in the navy were entitled to a shot of rum every day.
(Interview by Fay Breed, Maeve McLaughlin and Rosie Hoskins, February 2011.)
[Ernie was called up for National Service soon after his 18th birthday and sent to Malaya to fight against communists who were trying to overthrow the government. Malaya was part of the British Empire.]
Routine patrols in the jungle were difficult
We carried something like 60 lbs on our backs, not easy in that climate and terrain. Some men carried *Bren guns and others, like myself, a rifle. There were few automatic rifles in those days. Most of the officers managed to get an automatic rifle that gave you a considerable advantage. We carried ground sheets, spare clothing and enough food for 4 days. Around our waists we carried 2 high explosive grenades, 2 phosphorous grenades and a bayonet. We also carried an 18 inch machete which was a useful tool in the thick undergrowth. It was unusual for a patrol to last more than 4 days. Long distance patrols were practically useless because you needed so many men. The object in the early days was to get into communist camps that were deep in the mountainous jungle but if men were wounded you couldn’t get them out. Helicopters were not available and in any case, they would have been useless in the jungle. We made coloured smoke signals to contact aeroplanes which would then drop supplies.
When we bivouacked we worked in groups of 3. Each man carried a ground sheet and they were clipped together to make a tent. There would be a downpour every day at 4 o’clock for about an hour - you could set your clock by it - so you needed shelter. If you can imagine the heaviest downpour you have seen in this country; that would be a shower there. You could get soaked pretty quickly but with the heat you dried out again in an hour or so.’
Contact with the local population was limited
‘We had trackers with us on patrol from the Iban and Dyak tribes. The Dyaks had been head hunters only a few years before. The Iban lived on the coast but the Dyaks were an inland tribe and they were better. The jungle was their home and they could follow animal or human tracks like a bloodhound would. Dyak trackers were covered in tattoos in intricate patterns from head to foot, and often had sharp animal bones stuck through their noses, and carved wooden or bone earrings. I used to sit and watch them tattoo each other. They did it with a piece of wood with a needle sticking out of one side and soot or charcoal from the fire mixed with water to make ink. All the patterns had a tribal meaning, I believe.
There was no real contact with people living in the jungle because these were forbidden areas. If you came across anyone there you would shoot them because they must be terrorists. You couldn’t wait to ask questions; you may get shot yourself. The Malayans were lovely, friendly people and it’s a beautiful country. The population was mixed - about 50% Malay, 40% of Chinese descent and 10% Indians. The communists were invariably Chinese. There were a very few Japanese in the jungle left over from World War 11 which had only ended 5 years before. They couldn’t believe the war was over. They stayed there and joined the communists.
Insect and animal life was a notable feature of life in the jungle
We were not only fighting the communist enemy but conditions in the jungle. On one occasion we saw almost a river of ants on the move. These ants are quite large, but on the edge of this ‘river’ were larger ants - about 2-2.5 centimetres - that would attack any living thing that got in their way. We spent a restless night hoping they wouldn’t come through our bivouac.
There were also small red ants that infested bushes and if you brushed past them and they fell on you it felt like boiling water. They would be nipping you all over. Mosquitoes, of course, were a constant problem, especially in swamps along the coast.
The mountains went up over 3,000 feet, higher than Ben Nevis and all covered in jungle. Here, leaches were the main problem. They attached themselves to you and sucked your blood. We wore jungle boots that were supposed to be leach proof but you’d be walking along and one of your mates would say, ‘Guesty - your boots!’ You would look at your boots and they would be red. The leach had got into your boot, sucked your blood and then you had squashed it and blood was oozing out. They would also get attached to your back. One of the routine things we would do is stop every hour for a smoke and a rest. We used to light up a cigarette and touch the leach with the lighted end and they’d fall off. If you tried to pull them off their teeth would still be attached and it could leave a pretty nasty sore afterwards.
There was quite a lot of wildlife such as baboons swinging through the jungle making awful noises. The monkeys screeched when they heard anyone coming which warned the communists but it worked two ways, of course. If the communists were coming in our direction they warned us. But you couldn’t know if the monkeys were warning us or them!’
Some encounters were particularly memorable
I had an encounter with a tiger; luckily back at camp at Dingkil. We were stationed at a disused logging camp and I was on guard duty. The camp was surrounded by coils of barbed wire that would keep men out but not a tiger. There was a water tank on four concrete columns and we had filled the bits between the columns with sandbags. This was a favourite place to stop for a crafty smoke. I suppose it was something like 1a.m. As my comrade lit up he said, ‘What’s that?’ Two lights reflected back from the light of the match. ‘There’s somebody out there.’ We took cover behind the concrete columns and decided that I would shine a torch at an angle. We were afraid someone might shoot at the torch. Two huge eyes were reflected back. You’ve all seen cats eyes in car headlights. There was this tiger looking at us from behind the barbed wire. Jimmy said, ‘Let’s shoot it.’ But I said ‘No way!’ I didn’t want to face a wounded tiger. It was bad enough with one just eying us up. As well as that, if we missed it no one would believe we were defending ourselves from a tiger and if you let a shot off accidently you were immediately fined 21 days pay for being careless. We decided Jimmy would go back to the guard tent for reinforcements. I said, ‘Don’t run whatever you do.’ The tiger would think he was prey and chase. I watched the tiger. My main concern was that the torch batteries would run out, so I switched it on every minute or two. There was a faint amount of moonlight filtering through the trees and when I could see movement I could tell where it was. It was prowling backwards and forwards along the wire, weighing up what to do. When it stood still I switched the torch on to make sure it wasn’t doing anything silly. After ten minutes Jimmy came back from the guard tent, ‘They wouldn’t believe me!’ he said. We were told to get back on duty. Luckily for us, the tiger had had enough and decided to go somewhere else.
This had a traumatic effect on me. It had only been 15 yards away prowling up and down. Some years later when I had 3 boys I would wake up in the middle of the night yelling. I was having nightmares that a tiger had jumped over the garden fence and was running through the apple trees for the children. This was a recurring nightmare.
Another incident was at the camp in Dingkil. There was a commotion in the tent next to mine. I went to see what the problem was and there were four baby cobras under one of the beds. They had hatched out from somewhere and got into the tent. Even as small as that they would rear up and their hoods would come up. We beat them with lumps of wood. You didn’t want to wake up with a cobra in your bed. Another thing, when you got up in the morning you never just put your feet in your boots. You always turned them upside down and shook them to see what was in them.’
There was little in the way of entertainment
If you were lucky there would be a NAAFI at base camp in Kuala Lumpur where you could get a beer or a meal. At the outposts there was nothing. You could buy a beer from a small beer tent that we organised ourselves and have a sing song. Every two or three months the sergeant would organise a lorry load of us to go down to the beach and have a swim for the day. There were beautiful beaches nearby.’
Ernie became involved in checking villages cleared by the Malay government
Another aspect of the fight was laying night-time ambushes because a favourite tactic of the communists was to come out of the camps and threaten the villagers if they did not supply them with food and medicine. Supplying the communists was forbidden by law and you could get the death penalty for it, though I don’t think this was ever applied. The villagers were caught in a cleft stick. They were either shot by the communists because they didn’t supply them or went to prison if they did. Small villages in remote areas were very vulnerable.
So one of the tactics of the Malay government was to clear the area and put the villagers into a compound. They were quite free to come and go but it was protected by the Malay army and the police. They might be subjected to a search when they left to make sure they weren’t surreptitiously supplying the communists.
There was one incident I remember. The authorities had cleared the village and after that it was our job to search the houses to see if there were any hidden terrorists or booby traps. We worked in groups of three and carried a clicker, like a dog trainer’s clicker, as a warning if we saw anything. Anyway, we were searching this village and I heard a click, click behind me. My mate said he’d heard a noise from a house. We withdrew as there should have been no one around except some stray dogs who could be rabid and had to be shot. We decided to search this house. It was a typical jungle house, pretty flimsy, built with palm fronds on a wooden frame. The only way was to barge in through the door. Surprise was the essence.
We drew straws to see who would go in. I picked the short straw and had to dive in the door with my two comrades covering me. I said I would cover the right, Jimmy would cover the left and Ginger, who had the Bren gun, would follow us in and back us up. As I went through the door there was this terrific metallic crash that seemed even worse because I was terrified. I saw a movement and went to shoot at it but I heard someone shout, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!’ It was Jimmy who had seen what happened better than me. It was a very old Chinese woman, her face all wrinkled, her hair in a pigtail and dressed in a black pyjama-like outfit. What had happened was she had dropped a cooking pot out of fright as I had gone in. She’d been left behind. We had to search the house. She could have been held hostage for all we knew, but there was no one there. We tried to tell her that she must go to the police. I noticed that she had difficulty in walking and I looked at her feet and they were like little pigs trotters. Her feet had been bound though that had been banned in China many years before. That poor old lady, she had been subjected to foot binding as a child. The agonies she must have gone through with her feet trapped in those wooden clogs and then to almost finish her life by being shot by someone like me. We felt sorry for her; she had been left behind like one of those rabid dogs, completely forgotten. We took care of her and handed her over to the police. I realised later that evening back at camp that today had been my birthday, I was now nineteen.’
Ernie was glad to return home at the end of his service
We were there because we had to be. I had no wish to join the army and I think 90% of the men I was with felt the same. 90% of us were National Servicemen. I just wanted to go home. The Cold War was just beginning then and we weren’t as aware of the communist threat as we were later, though the situation was deteriorating rapidly.
*Bren gun - A light machine gun
(Interview by Fay Breed, Maeve McLaughlin and Rosie Hoskins, March 2011.)
Lionel was a little devil, like me, growing up. We did the usual things, playing football and fishing down the canal and all the things that youngsters do. You never got into serious trouble but you used to go over private land because if it says ‘private’ it’s a challenge to go! You could do a lot of things you can’t do today. You have to realise that this was in the war so there weren’t a lot of men about. There were one or two old ‘uns’ but they couldn’t run very fast! We used to go rabbiting and things that we shouldn’t have done. It was all fields and woods round here (before the new town was built) and in summer there was loads of kids up there camping and making fires. As long as you didn’t do any damage and kept clear of the wheat fields the farmers didn’t bother you. That was our life in the summer.
The local copper didn’t run after us - he just waited until Dad came home and told him.
We used to do a lot of swimming up at the lower swimming pool. Dad paid for a season ticket and we ‘lived’ at the swimming pool. On the way home we used to sit on Hemel Hempstead Moor and watch the cricket and help with the scoring.
Lionel played (football) for Blaw Knox, that’s a factory over at north Watford and for John Dickinson’s, the paper mill that’s not there now and he played for the juniors at Hemel Hempstead School. I can remember coming up and watching him on Sunday and Saturday mornings when he played for the school. We weren’t supposed to be there as we didn’t go to the school but we just came up and stood on the line and as long as nobody shouted they didn’t do anything to you. He used to impress on us, ‘Don’t you get me into trouble!’
We used to have fights as boys do. You always fall out, don’t you? You know? ‘Don’t put your stuff on my bed’ and that sort of thing. One of the things was that we lost our Mum when I was a youngster and the lady next door; she was a good old lady, Mrs Bonner. If we wanted a lump of cake she would come out and say, ‘You boys stop fighting and I’ll give you a lump of cake’. She was a lovely old lady.
I started work first even though I was that bit younger, because Lionel went to the Hemel Hempstead Grammar School where you didn’t leave until you were sixteen. Lionel won a scholarship to HHGS. Dad would never have afforded to pay. Lionel was the brains of the family.
After he started work I didn’t see him much, only in the evening and at weekends and then he started courting in Kings Langley. He was still going with her when he was in the forces. There was a story from one of the lads in his platoon that she wrote him a ‘Dear John’ letter* just before that accident but we didn’t find out about this until quite a few years afterwards. She was a nice girl.
He worked for the Prudential Insurance Company at Watford. He was getting on well there. Those sorts of jobs are well paid. He used to get paid once a month and it was a lot more than I could get but he used to get broke about three weeks on and I had to lend him ten bob. He could have had a good job if he’d stayed there. It’s nice to think would he have got one? What sort of family would he have had if he’d had children? You just think of these things but it wasn’t to be.
He was excited about going into the forces. Because he’d got his school certificate** he was an educated lad and the first thing they used to do with an educated lad was put him in Battalion H.Q. Well, that was office work. He got fed up of being in the safe area - he wanted to be out with the boys. He could have stayed in office work and not gone out. He wanted a bit of excitement.
The last time I saw him he was lying in bed - we used to be in the same bedroom. I just run upstairs and said, ‘I’ll see you when I see you, mate’ and he said, ‘Okay’, and that was the last time I saw him.
I had been in the army about a month and had just come home on leave. We got a telegram about 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon, the 11th, to say that he was wounded and then we had another on the Sunday to say that he had died. You knew the second one because it had a black edge round it. That was just before I was due to go back and they got me another day’s leave.Being in the forces helped me. I had so much to do with the training and so on. You couldn’t think about it.
Lionel is buried in Kuala Lumpur. They didn’t bring them home in those days. He died on the 12th and was buried the next day. They do that out there because of the heat. Me and my brother and our wives went out in 1987 to see his grave. It’s a big cemetery but they’ve got a corner for the military. There was another local lad that was killed two years later and is buried a few rows up.
We were told that Lionel might not have been able to walk again and when you look at it like that - lying in bed for all those years - you think to yourself was it a good thing or a bad thing (that he died). Though it’s hard you have to be hard sometimes and look on the right of side of things.
*Dear John letter - A letter written to a member of the armed forces from his girl friend saying that she wanted to end their relationship.
** School certificate - The equivalent of modern GCSEs.
(Interview by Louise Hayes and Pippa Carr, 12th January 2011.)
How did you come to be in the Army in the first place?
I was one of the last National Servicemen. Put in context - I broke my ankle playing football two months before I should have started national service after leaving school. And so they wanted to defer me for six months so I asked them if I could have deferment for three years and went to university first. That meant I was quite old for a National Serviceman and I don’t know anyone else who graduated at the same time as I did who went. So I really was one of the last.
What was the unit that you served with?
In Berlin it was 62 Squadron, Royal Army Service Corps as it then was.
What responsibilities did you have?
I was in charge of a Platoon within the Company but, as with all things in Berlin, nothing was the same as it was anywhere else. So, although I was in charge of the platoon, I had one English sergeant and two English corporals and all the rest of the platoon were German. We only had tipper trucks which would not have been engaged in hostilities had there been any. They were purely for civilian use.
Where did you serve in Germany?
In Berlin and then a short period in Dusseldorf.
What kind of things were involved?
What did I do? In terms of the platoon, I was only there because it was a requirement to have a British officer in charge of the platoon. All the staff were German - I don’t think any of them spoke English. The sergeant who was immediately under me was a fluent German speaker because he had a German wife and he did all the organization but it was almost entirely a civilian organization. They had their own foreman, they had their own little groups and they more-or-less organized themselves. When I say they organized themselves, it was more that everything worked on a daily basis. So, unless we went out on exercises, I was very much a figurehead. Different things could happen and one was given a load of ancillary jobs as well. It wasn’t very exciting!
What were these exercises?
The only exercises we did in Berlin was the call-out procedure. Other than that, we took all the vehicles down into the zone to do the exercises on training grounds there. I mean Western Germany as it used to be. We went onto training areas there and we performed general transport exercises rather than exercises specifically relevant to Berlin.
I believe you also despatched sometimes from Berlin to the west?
That was one of the ‘funnies’ because Berlin was funded on the Bonn Budget. All the costs of maintaining the garrisons in Berlin were paid for by the German Federal Government so it wasn’t a British Army cost. That meant that all our vehicles were German. We didn’t have any British vehicles at all because the Germans provided the vehicles for us. Also, the corridor through the zone, through the Russian zone, was also German-funded. You’ve probably heard of Checkpoint Charlie which was the one established between East Berlin and West Berlin. Prior to that there were Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo and Alpha was at Helmstedt, which is on the border between West and East Germany, and Bravo was where you entered Berlin from the eastern zone and those two points were also funded out of the German budget. The Berlin end was no problem because we just drove straight down there as required but the one at Helmstedt was a different ball game because we had to take their supplies down to them. So that meant that every four weeks or so, somebody had to go down there with the fuel - liquid fuel, solid fuel - and also certain other things as well. That was when the trips came and you actually knew you were still in Berlin.
What were the events in West Berlin leading up to the Wall being built?
Nothing! It just came out of the blue. I was actually the Orderly Officer for the barracks that weekend. Looking back on it, it was strange, almost eerie, because I knew from the radio that the Wall was being built and there was activity down there so I was actually quite prepared - for a change we’re actually going to be called out to go to stations and it will mean something - but they didn’t call us out and we sat there - we knew the Wall was going up - but we didn’t take any action at all. I think the Americans did. The French didn’t and we didn’t. But the Americans didn’t do anything. They just watched them build the Wall. What would have happened if the Americans had chosen to trample over it in those first few hours I don’t know - nobody knows. You could say that if the Americans had just gone those extra two hundred yards and driven a couple of tanks over the Wall then it would never have been built but they didn’t do it, possibly because, if you look at it another way, it would have been an act of aggression and just the excuse the Russians needed. But there was no build-up at all. Certainly, as far as I was concerned, the hierarchy might have known that something was afoot but at my level it just came out of the blue.
Which years were you in Berlin?
Sixty and sixty-one. The Wall went up in August 1961 so I was only there for two months while the Wall was up. Most of my service in Berlin was pre-Wall. Not that it made a great difference to daily routine. The routine continued as it had before.
I believe part of your duties involved taking patrols into the Russian Sector?
I didn’t take patrols as such. After the Wall went up, they decided that everyday at least one junior officer would go into the eastern sector i.e. the eastern half of Berlin and we had to go for three things - they would say, ‘Can you go to this area and report on troop movements and the forces there etc?’ The ridiculous thing about this was that we had to go in a military vehicle and we had to travel in full dress uniform. In other words, you couldn’t go in combat gear so there was no way we were going to be inconspicuous. Therefore, it was absolutely useless to go in the back way, so to speak, and peer through hedges and everything else. I’m afraid I took the view that they know we’re there so I drove up to the ‘front door’, had a look and went away. I was never tackled or anything.
But you were spying?
Yes, I was in a way. In those days I knew what the Russian TAC signs were and I knew what the East German TAC signs were so I could identify which unit was in which location. So, to that extent, I was putting information back into Headquarters. It was an almost surreal situation because we were going in, we were collecting information - intelligence information - but because we were doing it in uniform, in military vehicles, there was no point in being secretive about it. It was obvious who we were and what we were going to do. This was all a bit ‘Cold War-ish’. The Cold War was - at the level I was at - almost a bit of a game. It was obviously rather more serious at a higher level but at our level it was artificial, even to the extent that when we took vehicles down through the corridor, the white Russian officers, not the oriental ones, if we were going to be held up for six, eight hours or whatever, they would tell us, ‘You’ll be waiting eight hours today’ and that was it.
Were these deliberately obstructive tactics?
Yes. The checkpoints were always manned by Soviets and not by East Germans. Whether they would have told a more senior officer that he was going to be held up for eight hours, I doubt, but with a junior officer, they were quite open about it. And if you had the tankers down there was a lot of checking and they would take every last piece of kit off the tanker, dismantling everything and laying it out on the ground, checking it all over meticulously. They were the worst ones - it could take three hours to check all the kit on a tanker. They would stop us and search us even when we were in ordinary soft-sided vehicles - if they were feeling that way.
What was your view of the Soviets?
Other than meeting them at the checkpoints, we had nothing to do with them. On a purely informal basis, the white Russians were quite friendly with us. The chaps who came from further east generally speaking weren’t as friendly. The only time we met them was at the checkpoints. They were a bit more abrupt at Checkpoint Charlie - more abrupt and off-hand than at Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo. I think as a transport unit we were going through Alpha and Bravo far more regularly. An infantry unit would only go through those checkpoints when they were going to an exercise and tanks would never go through. So we saw them more than most.
Did the Soviets also send patrols into the western zone?
Not that we were aware of. There were these marvellous institutions called BRIXMIS and SOXMIS. BRIXMIS was the British Mission to East Germany and SOXMIS was the Soviet Mission to the west. SOXMIS had these cars and we knew they were there and it was a constant threat. We were warned about SOXMIS cars because they could travel anywhere and I don’t know how they were kitted out but BRIXMIS cars were Opel Kapitans - the biggest saloon they did. These were replaced every six months and they absolutely bristled with cameras, listening devices and everything else and they went into East Germany purely with the intention of gaining intelligence information. And I suspect the SOXMIS were floating about the streets of West Berlin with exactly the same intention. I twice saw a SOXMIS car but never when I was actually posted in Berlin but afterwards when I was in the TA (Territorial Army). Everyone knew what they were - they had to have very large plates on them identifying what they were - the same for the British. It was just part of the game.
What did the border between the zones look like before the Wall went up?
Before the Wall went up you only knew you had gone into East Berlin because the architecture changed. There was no sign saying you are now entering East Berlin. There were signs on the boundary of West Berlin and the zone - ‘You are about to leave the British Zone’ - but there were no signs saying you were going into East Berlin. Until the Wall went up you could just drive around East Berlin. You had to go in uniform; you weren’t allowed to go into the east in civilian clothes. As long as we put our uniform on, we could go where we liked and by private car as well. Prior the Wall, you knew you were in East Berlin because the atmosphere changed. The gaudy advertising hoardings disappeared and the people were of a different way of thinking and the Russian-inspired architecture.
Did you like the atmosphere of East Berlin?
No, I can’t say I liked it. It was different and we did go into the east quite a lot, especially on Sunday afternoons, purely because the east had more countryside than the west and there was quite a large area on the eastern extremities of Berlin which was pure countryside. There wasn’t any real equivalent to that within West Berlin - so about once a month on a Sunday afternoon I would get in the car and disappear and drive around . The only danger was then that you had to have a reasonable navigator because what you mustn’t do was drive over the border and there were no signs whatsoever between East Germany and East Berlin. While we were perfectly free to move within East Berlin, in no way were we allowed into East Germany. Had we strayed over that border, it would have been straight down to Potsdam (ed : Soviet military Headquarters in Berlin). We were pretty careful on that side.
Before the Wall went up, were there checkpoints then?
There were only Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo. Checkpoint Charlie was part of the Wall. There had been a checkpoint there but you didn’t have to use it - it was a box in the middle of the road and that was it.
Didn’t they put barbed wire up between the zones?
Initially, it was a few breeze blocks and a few coils of barbed wire on top of them. That initial day, when they first went up, was no more than four-foot high breeze block with barbed wire on top. But by the time they continued to construct the rest of it, I believe it was about two-feet thick. Topped with wire and glass, not to mention the watch-towers and Vopos etc. (ed: Volkspolizei - East German Police). It went up overnight -only that initial phase. They started at the key points, like the Brandenburg Gate and built the Wall around the Brandenburg Gate but only to a very elementary level - and similarly on the other main roads. There was none of the blocking-up of windows in the side streets and that kind of thing - that only came later. Having got it erected, they just kept building it and building it. It went up overnight but they worked on it for months, if not years afterwards to bring it to the level it was finally at.
One thing I thought you might ask was the atmosphere within Berlin which was an isolated city, obviously. We had had the Berlin Airlift to keep it supplied. From a personal point of view, it was a strange feeling just going into Berlin because you knew you were cut off from the outside but once I’d done a trip down to the zone, through the checkpoints to Helmstedt and back, I forgot about that and one just continued a life in Berlin. Within Berlin, I think the only thing you noticed was a lack of fresh milk. There were no farms within Berlin at all but there were allotments and vegetables came up on the barges. You didn’t have fresh milk so whenever you had tea or anything at all, it was always evaporated milk. It stays with you for a long time. And that was the other thing - most of the supplies for Berlin came up the river on barges. All the solid fuel, all the liquid fuel came up the river and was unloaded at the docks.
The other thing was that, although it was called the Berlin Infantry Brigade Group, it wasn’t a Brigade Group at all. It was a collection of military geared to Berlin. I said earlier, our transport squadron would normally have been four platoons of twenty vehicles which were general load-carrying but we only had one platoon like that. My platoon was tippers which dealt with the supply of solid fuel to various installations. The Third Platoon was purely coaches for taking children to school and that kind of thing and they had about six Volkswagen which anybody within the garrison would use as taxi-cabs. The fourth one was purely staff cars and the BRIXMIS cars. So we were very unusual in that situation. We only had one infantry regiment instead of three, we’d only got a troop of tanks instead of a squadron and it was just accepted that, if anything happened, if the Berlin Garrison lasted 24 hours, we would have done extremely well. We were a sacrificial lamb and it was accepted that we would be completely over-run but we had to keep the presence there - to maintain the British influence within Berlin itself. We were expendable - to have lasted 24 hours would have been miraculous. They would have had to have attacked us as a starting point. But we knew that - so when we had a callout we only took out the normal military vehicles. We didn’t take out the tippers, the coaches or the staff cars - none of those went out. The only vehicles we would actually have used if anything happened would have been the normal military vehicles.
Did you visit Berlin after your national service?
I’ve been back twice. I left the Army after national service, thinking, ‘That’s good, that’s the end of that. I can go back to normal civilian life.’ That lasted for all of four months because I went into London to stay over the weekend with an ex-school friend and he dragged me down to Trafalgar Square to a CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] march and I looked round and thought, ‘Well, if they can afford the time to be in the CND, I can afford the time to be in the TA.’ So I went back home and joined the TA and, from that point on, I served for another thirty-odd years in uniform and was able to get back to Berlin while I was still serving.
Did you feel it was different each time you went back?
All my visits back were in the sixties. I’ve not been back since. In the sixties, it hadn’t changed a great deal - the Wall was still up. I think if you went back now, it would be unrecognisable because the Olympic Stadium - you’ve no doubt seen on television what the Olympic Stadium is like now - left over from 1936, was purely a horseshoe of concrete terracing and a vast area of grass and concrete which we, in fact, used for parades and that kind of thing. Whereas now, if you went out there, the Brigade Headquarters was in the area at the edge of the Olympic Stadium but now it’s a modern athletics facility. So, vast changes there and, of course, the east will be totally different since 1989. I think I ought to go back! When I did go back, I still knew people there which was an extra incentive. I knew the staff in the Mess and I knew a couple of Germans who ran restaurants. I’m not now in contact with them but I was in contact during that period so when I went back, it was quite nostalgic in a way. Also, I had an open sports car in those days which made me feel even better! And the Russians didn’t try to hold me up in that!
Was it your experience that Berliners were a different kind of Germans than found elsewhere in the country?
Yes. The British were always more accepted in Berlin than anywhere else because they knew that, if we went, then anyone could walk in. But they also have their own peculiar accent. Even I - I don’t actually speak any German now - whilst I was out there, I apparently had a Berlin accent. And when I went out into the zone and spoke in a restaurant or hotel, I could be recognised as having come from Berlin!
(Interview by Samantha Rees and Helena Mansbridge, June 2010.)
Captain David Broomfield
My first tour in Afghanistan was from April to October 2007. I was in B Suffolk Company, 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment and I was platoon commander of 6th Platoon.
A lot of people had been in the Army and been in Northern Ireland and never fired a shot and never been shot at and everyone essentially asks themselves, ‘How am I going to react when I get shot at?’ It’s a little bit ‘sick’ fascinating when everyone thinks, ‘Wow, I’d like to have it happen to me just so I know’, and this seemed like the chance to find out.
The training was not particularly brilliant when you look back on it so we deployed out there not quite knowing what to expect in Afghanistan. It was hot when we got there - about 40 degrees during the day. I went out with the Royal Marines to the base at Fort Porag. Just outside the town of Gereshk. It was the first clearance of Sang and everybody had gone. The Taliban had gone, the local nationals had gone and there was no-one there so we drove in there pretty much unhindered. At night we parked up, built some defensive positions, sat there for three days and there were some bombs dropped but I think they were more in hope rather than in any actual confirmation of any enemy being there. And that kind of sums up what the attitude was in that we didn’t really think what we were doing.
Then we came back and prepared for our first battle-group operation which was Op Silicon. And that was quite interesting because we’d all gone out there and been out on the ground patrolling, not knowing what it was like and then you hear gunfire and everyone’s really nervous and twitchy and you’re getting used to how you are going to manoeuvre in the green zone because it’s the first time you are there.
Please can you explain what the ‘green zone’ is?
The green zone is the area of vegetation and irrigated land inside of the River Helmand and it’s a mixture of compounds, mud-brick houses, walls, ditches - quite deep ditches. It’s very difficult to manoeuvre in by anything other than foot and even on foot it takes a long time. It becomes very challenging and you end up having to move quite carefully through it.
At the time we didn’t have to worry about IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), and we didn’t have to worry about where we were putting our feet. I spread my platoon out and realised that I couldn’t talk to anybody except for the section that I was with. I’d learnt all those tactics on the ground and nothing could have prepared you for actually being there, doing it, thinking if this had all gone wrong, I can’t even speak to that section. We advanced forward and then the other two platoons came under fire so we did what we’d done in training which was to advance forward to close with the enemy so we could get a position to counter them. But then all our tactics are based on the enemy being in positions that they’re not going to keep moving from and they’re set and dug in.
We moved into a built-up area and there were two or three gunmen that were just popping up shooting at us and we tried to move out and got shot at and couldn’t move because 5 and 7 Platoon were being engaged on the road and they were firing out on both sides. You can’t move into fire so we were stuck in this compound. We did try to push out - ‘Let’s go,’ flat-footed down the road, moving and breaking into a bombed compound. Kick the door in - on to the next compound. So, as we were about to do that, there was an almighty explosion on the back side of the compound and everyone got blown off their feet. There was dust everywhere and I remember thinking, ‘Oh crap, not everyone is going to stand up - we’ve taken casualties and what are going to do now?’ ‘Give me a head count, give me a head count, where is everyone?’ And all of a sudden all of these people’s heads popped out of the dust cloud and people coughing and spluttering. ‘Right we’re not going that way. So we threw a grenade to cover our extraction, popped back out, found my platoon sergeant who was on the other side, covering his nose, ‘What happened, Boss, what happened?’ It must have been an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). It hit some of the rubble on the other side.
Everyone’s fine but we’re not getting out of here; we’re going to fall back. What happened to your nose? ‘Well, I was on the other side of the wall and when the blast went off, it blew all the crap off the wall into my face.’ So he had a cut on his nose and we were laughing about that and we came back in to this compound and the question, ‘Are we going to move? Are we not going to move?’ And there was a lot of confusion on the net because the OC (Officer Commanding) was dealing with the fight he was in.
So we ended up sitting there for about six hours. There was sporadic fire coming at us and guys would fire back and it really summed up being in the army. Being in a conflict is 95% boredom, sitting around waiting for stuff to happen, and 5% terror. ‘Oh my God, this is going mad, what am I going to do?’ And as a commander, the first time you see that, you really feel the pressure - if I go that way someone could get killed. Ok, am I willing to take that risk or am I best off just sitting here? What am I trying to achieve? If someone gets injured going back there, on the hope I can link up with them and I don’t, then someone’s got injured and I’ve achieved nothing, then you really start to think, ‘What am I trying to do and why am I doing it?’ It’s risk verses reward - very much so. Because in the Second World War it was ‘we are fighting an enemy and we must take this ground’. Out there we weren’t going to hold this ground and if you don’t have to take the risk, what’s the reward basically?
So we stayed in this compound for quite a time and we started to run out of water and we weren’t going to drink water from the local wells which were poisoned. It’ll make you sick and we all started to run out of water. One of the guys went down with heat exhaustion, body popping and eyes out of the back of his head. We pulled him down and took more water and he recovered and we were on the net talking to the doctor and that was the only way we could coordinate. We couldn’t casevac him out because we couldn’t afford a helicopter and we couldn’t move him down to other vehicles so we had to treat him on the ground. We’d got no back up and you have to get on with it. We just started to drink the well water from the pump that was in the compound and it was really cold and nice and didn’t taste of chemicals and that gave a benefit to the rest of the tour, realising that we could drink out of the wells which reduced the amount of weight we had to carry. The private soldier recovered fine and this was one of the good things we learned - a lot of the training, a lot of the fuss made about PE (Practical Exercise) injuries, you’re off for six months - but actually out there you just have to crack on with it. It’s a wonderful thing; they heal themselves and get on with it. Eventually we did get out of the compound again because the Taliban got hit by a couple of 500 pound bombs and they extracted back. We moved up to a ditch by the side of a road where we made a check point and sat there and spent the night just sitting and sleeping by the side of the road till morning and then moved on to the next phase of the operation.
Captain Simon Broomfield
To a large degree, our TR7 tour was a series of quite big ops with a definite individual end-state to be achieved for each operation whereas from October and through back in March our routine, day-to-day, was much more focused on my little area. We had our initial patrol base and we probably wouldn’t patrol more than four kilometres from it. We were up against an enemy that was trying to melt into the population. And also the considerations for us were, if we walk over people’s fields, because we don’t want to get hit by an IED, that’s going to ruin their crop and not all of them grow poppies. It’s a large thing and to be honest they do sell it (heroin) in towns most of the time but that’s the only way they can make money. They’ve been told to grow that crop and they have to do it. So we try to placate them and give them the best opportunity to at least survive and make a bit of money so we try to avoid their fields wherever possible. Obviously, if we ever felt under threat we’d walk in a field and they’d come in and we’d give them a bit of cash for it if we destroyed any crop. We were trying to give a presence on the ground and our job essentially was to patrol but we were always expecting to get shot at, always expecting a device to go off. I would do a lot of sit downs with my chaps with the locals just speaking to them for 5 or 10 minutes chatting to locals or farmers. If we knew who a key leader was in the area, chat to him, find out information that way, build up that whole relationship that if you’re bouncing around places doing a big op you can’t really get.
But, one, they didn’t want to talk to us because they were scared of what happens with reprisals. And, two, we didn’t have that much we could offer them because we would be moving out again and a lot of the time they would just leave. We would rock up in an area and all the population would stream out in all different directions and let you know you were going to have a fight so it was quite surreal. You’d spark up, watch the locals leave - everyone happy, the locals have all left- off we go then - and then we’d go in and have our fight and wait up to see if any of the locals come back and try to talk to some of them. The locals would come in again and along with them probably the Taliban. We realised we had to hold ground and the problem with holding ground is that it takes a huge number of troops. It limits the amount of influence. From being under control, or we thought control, of a massive area, including Ghanish, Nawar and areas we’d visit once every month, eventually we went down to having a company billet controlling an area maybe 500 metres to 2 kilometres of wall around itself. Suddenly you’ve lost influence over so much of Afghanistan. You just can’t go there.
Holding ground is incredibly difficult and the ground itself was so complex and the compounds so illogically organized that unless you had blokes everywhere you just couldn’t do it - even the Americans haven’t got enough manpower. Because the Taliban are not as numerous as they were in previous tours, they’re trying to fight us with IEDs rather than with weapons. A lot of them have got metal in them so we carry metal detectors and stuff which stops radio-controlled devices and things like that which are very heavy so blokes are carrying between 80 to maybe 120 pounds and that’s a hell of a lot of weight, especially for someone who may weigh only about 140 pounds. So you patrol quite slowly - you may only go 8Ks on a patrol and it will take you up to 10 hours or something. If you get in a fire fight you may only go 3 kilometres and be out for 10 hours. It can be frustrating - when you do it on Salisbury Plain - it’s a bit like play but on a more technical scale. If someone gets shot ‘You’ve had your leg blown off?’ and the guys are like ‘Cheers - that’s me out for the next day’. In that situation, they won’t be a part any more so they just want to go to sleep in a wagon or something. But when you’re out there and you think, ‘I’ve got these choices - if that’s not going to absolutely help 100% what I want to achieve and I lose a bloke doing it I won’t be able to live with myself really. Can I justify that to myself? Or his parents?’
The MOD has re-created an Afghan village in Thetford which is used for training. When we went in it was full of Afghans and they’d dressed it up so the villages looked exactly like an Afghan village and because we were hurried through the pre-deployment training, we were very clear in our heads that we had to take this seriously from day one. The first time we went out we’d not had the chance, due to time restraints, to patrol even as a section so the guys weren’t 100% sure what noise meant what. By the end of the tour we were walking at normal walking pace because the guys knew exactly what each noise means and they were happy that things move better when you move a bit quicker and you understand your own area.
You know they’re clever about where they put their devices. They’ll put them where they know you have to walk or they know a vehicle has to go and there’s no alternative route and you’re looking for ground signs so you can see if anything’s been buried or anything’s been changed. If you get hit by an IED where are you going to extract from - If they’re shooting, where are you going to move to cover? If they put the IED on top of that wall, it’s going to get you as well. They’re very, very good at appreciating ground, knowing where we can and can’t see and they put IEDs in at night or in areas of dead ground and know that we have to clear them and we have to keep going back.
The EOD teams out there (Explosive Ordnance Disposal Teams) do a fantastic job but there’s never enough of them to get in there and get every IED.
They are getting hit and it’s probably the highest risk job. The average casualty figure for a battle group is 20% so about a fifth of the people will expect to get injured in some form although this could be anything from falling off a vehicle to losing a leg. But the EOD guys are working at 50% - half of them are being injured.
As soon as you walk out of a patrol base - you leave at half two in the morning when it’s pitch black and they won’t be able to see us and our chaps carry something which enables us to hear what the Taliban are saying on their little radios. At first light they’ll be able to see us. And within five minutes they know - Yes, they’re leaving now. It’s not worth trying to hide yourself. Get a bit of cover - they know roughly where you are if you can get a good bit of cover it’s fine but, conversely, they might put an IED in it.
It’s just understanding that operations out there now are very time-consuming and very slow. You’d rather take five hours to move a kilometre and have everyone there. It just comes down to taking it piece by piece. You can’t move on from somewhere until you’ve set the conditions for it to look after itself. It’s secure now and we’ll move on to the next bit.
Do the Taliban have the advantage because they know the ground? I was thinking of Vietnam?
It’s different from the Vietnam War in that there’s no centralized government you’re fighting against. You have an armed force that has a political doctrine of fighting a long war but a lot of the Taliban don’t know what they want to achieve other than killing infidels, killing members of ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). They say they want to make us leave Afghanistan but it’s not as focused, not as directed as the Vietcong were and the North Vietnamese. It’s a different kind of counter insurgency. The way that they fight is tactically very similar, and may be operationally because they want to use the press but strategically they’re fighting for global jihad and global spread of Islam and Afghanistan is their chosen battle ground. They’re not fighting to win back Afghanistan per se. They start in Afghanistan because they want all the foreigners out. They want to have that insidious control over it and they’re not that fussed about having the responsibility of running the actual country. For some people, I suppose, they hate westerners and just like to do it. You can’t group them all together. It’s not a party line from the top that everyone abides by. People have different motivations. It doesn’t seem like Vietnam, a politically motivated government with a set regime of taking over that country and imposing a communist structure on it. They are fighting for militant Islam, for spreading of Shiah law but not this man is our leader, we will impose our control over the land, this is our cabinet.
Are we, to an extent, trying to impose our culture on them?
Where we were, we walked around, spoke very few words of the language - seven or eight - we were there to speak to the locals, help them to understand that they could trust us and we were there to help them and make their area safe and it was down to the government that comes in once we’ve done our job to how they lived, what their culture should be, whether there be schools. That was their decision to make. We were there to fight for security - a school or a hospital hasn’t got as much kudos if the military has set it up. Some people won’t agree that ISAF should be there so that school becomes a target, whereas if the government had done it then it’s got far more legitimacy. On my level, on the ground with the locals, we were just there trying to be cheerful people for them, making life a bit safer and making it a bit more secure. The government decides how they run culturally after that.
A lot of the policies are difficult for us to discuss because it keeps changing. Things like schools - they did try building schools and getting teachers organized. There was an army school we opened up - hooray for us - then we go away and come back. Teachers are all killed, pupils are all killed. It’s self-defeating; it needs to be set up by the Afghans. That’s the key to embedded partnering. We set the conditions and they do the re-building. They do it and we are just there to help and support them with the security that we can bring.
Partnering as well means that if we decide a compound needs to be searched, the ANA (Afghan National Army) soldiers would do it and I’d just go in, in the background. They’d organize the families so culturally ISAF has done nothing - we’ve not inconvenienced the families, Afghans have done the search. If it was a fire fight situation to clear the compounds, that would be very different. The Afghans are very brave at times but if they see one of their friends get hurt or killed, all of a sudden all wind from their sails disappears so you have to be the people that grab them and tell them that they have to keep on going’. If I wanted information from locals, I would go with my interpreter and do it myself. But the fact that they can have a laugh and a joke with the locals and speak the language, rather than having the message relayed through an interpreter, it means a lot and hopefully they’ll learn from us and we also learn things from them. The two of us together work a lot better than just Afghan forces.
You have to understand how they work. They’ve been out there four years - and we’re here for six months. If they don’t want to go out on patrol they won’t. They set the pattern. You say - ‘That doesn’t make any sense to me as a westerner’ - but you just have to go with it. You’ve got to sell them the idea - they will say, ‘Why should I do what he says?’ The other thing is we carry a lot of kit - body armour, helmet, water, a bit of food, night vision, our radios, all this sort of stuff. We carry that stuff even if we expect only to be out for two hours and we leave early in the morning whereas, when we go out on patrols with the ANA, we get to half eleven and they’ll say we need our lunch now. They carry a rifle and body armour, probably not a helmet - though they started to after a few IEDs went off among them. They carry a minimum. They don’t even carry water - if they need some, they’ll drink from a well. They’ll go and have some lunch and then meet with us afterwards. Their way of operating is very different to ours. It’s easy for us to go out for six months and then come back to England and chill out for four weeks. A bit of leave and then six months off before training begins again. They don’t get this - a new unit comes out and they don’t get the rest period. It’s a matter of adapting to their culture. Often they will achieve more by doing less.
That knowledge of the population and them knowing you is fundamental. That whole idea of making sure they were aware of what ISAF is and that we are there for them, that we’re not going to leave them in the lurch and hopefully, if we spread that message wide enough, they would side with us and understand that we were there to make their lives better and not to impose things like drink coke out of a vending machine.
If you leave after six months do you form a real relationship with the villages and do they trust you - I still remember the faces of the locals - although haven’t a clue what they were saying. There was a guy that, every time I walked past him - he was a mechanic, he could fix anything - I’d stop for two or three minutes with him. I’d have a laugh with him; he might bring out a cup of tea. We’d just have a chat. Once you’ve got to that point where you can sit and have a laugh. A lot of the time, I’d take my helmet off and take my radio head-set off if I felt safe to do so. Who are you going to be more responsive to ? someone sitting there with his safety glasses on, his helmet or someone who can be trusted?
It’s fundamental to get cultural awareness right. You might think you’re trying to help someone but if you humiliate him in front of his family or his peers, until you get someone new in, he will give you nothing. That cultural awareness which they teach you at Thetford, that is critical.
What about the equipment you use?
At first guys wore T-shirts under their body armour, whereas now everyone wears gloves and long sleeves. It’s absolutely proven. A guy in our company lost both his legs but having worn sleeves and gloves this will without doubt save his fingers. When I was wounded, if I hadn’t had the goggles on, it could have been a lot worse. This reduces the whole risk of these injuries and everyone’s become more aware - the helmet’s there for a purpose and without a shadow of a doubt, the kit for an individual soldier is brilliant out there. You get enough stuff so you can actually move and do everything you need to do as a soldier or you just want to be able to operate.
When you were injured, where were you?
We were in a village about 12ks north of our patrol base. We got helicoptered in there to go into a compound. Again, we paid the locals compensation and chatted and it was perfectly friendly. We had some ANA with us so there was this Afghan face with it all. What we were trying to achieve was a bit of a presence - get the ISAF presence a bit wider and shake the Taliban up a bit. It’s just one of those things. If you stay there for two years most people would get an injury of some sort. That operation where I got injured and the guys that got killed - we could have done nothing better and nothing different. We’ve just got to accept the fact that if they can hide in ground where it’s sandy, it’s rocky- it’s easy to hide stuff. You’ve got to accept that that’s the risk you take every time you go out on patrol and you’re minimising those risks every step. But sometimes someone’s going to get hit at some point.
And someone radios for a helicopter?
Yes, the American system’s incredible. The guys were treated on the ground and a medic came and carried on my treatment. Within 35 minutes I was on a Chinook helicopter. If needed they can take a guy’s leg off or they can do stuff that will save a leg on the helicopter. Then I landed at Bastion and was literally whisked straight into an operating theatre. David was there when I came round. Within 36 hours of injury I was being wheeled into Selly Oak and ended up there for seven weeks. You get every sense of support.
Medical planning drives everything. Unless you’ve got the medical cover, people will think about how they’re going to do a casevac. When you go on patrol, every platoon leader is thinking about how would you evacuate casualties. It takes eight people to evacuate that person because of the kit they carry on the stretcher. To carry him 600 metres, people are going to be absolutely exhausted and they’ve got to change over. So to extract one person takes a platoon. You’ve got to have protection; you’ve got to have the team to change round the stretcher. You’ve then got to secure the HLS (Helicopter Landing Site), clear it for IEDs before the helicopter comes in, you’ve got to protect the helicopter and it becomes so important and it’s rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed. The way they do it is a very set format. Training really does kick in so you don’t miss information about whether they’re male or female, what sort of injury it is, their breathing rates, all that sort of thing. There are two sorts of helicopters. There are the Blackhawks which will put on tourniquets and get you back as quickly as possible. They can pick up four people maximum and there are the fully prepared medical teams which can prep you ready for theatre. But the issue is the dust - people don’t realise how dusty everything is in Afghanistan. You spend your whole time covered in it. It crunches in your teeth, it gets in your hair and it’s not just mud, it’s also crap, including human faeces. When the blast injuries occur it gets into the blood stream - it’s what stops wounds healing. It literally stops your blood clotting - it’s the biggest risk.
If my platoon sergeant says, ‘I’m not confident about dealing with a casualty,’ I’ll go to my company commander and say we can’t do this. He’ll say if you can’t extract casualties, then don’t do stuff. You can’t expect the blokes to risk their lives unless you can help them out if they do get injured.
Before our talk, I thought the war was a very negative thing, but you’ve put more of a positive view, that we’re there to help other people. Do you find when you come back that everyone is quite negative?
When I came back from Iraq in 2005, I got off the bus and that was it. Now there’s so much more awareness of Afghanistan and the casualties and the public perception has really changed. The way you are treated now in the military is very different. Now if you go out in uniform, people come up and shake your hand. We have the Freedom Parades people in the towns want to support us. We’ve just done one in Southend - we must have had 7000 people on the streets. You wouldn’t have seen that beforehand. It’s also helped with the recruiting in the army. People want to be there people want to go to Afghanistan.
People feel they should give you sympathy. I don’t feel I need or particularly deserve sympathy as I was aware of the risks to myself and my soldiers when I went out there. I got off quite lucky really - most people come back without an injury - but out of injured people, I’ve not come off that badly at all. People think it must have been horrible out there - but not at all - bits of it were absolutely dire but bits of it were absolutely amazing. As an experience as a whole, that’s the strongest experience of my life. That initial tour that you do - it’s the big one - and it’s the one that will stick with me definitely.
One of the reasons people get back and people are quiet or thoughtful is because they’re actually a bit bereft - they miss that sense of being part of something larger - a Band of Brothers. Where we were, 6 Platoon was our world. It was brilliant to be part of that organization and to work with those people, to know people that well. Even if you’re in a ditch, up to your waist in water with bullets whizzing round your ears, someone will make you laugh. At the end of it, you’re exhilarated. It’s the biggest adrenaline rush in the world.
I wouldn’t say you’re frightened because you’re too busy thinking about what’s going on around. People go out knowing that they could be at risk because it’s that professional challenge, you’re thinking about the problem - how am I going to solve it. So you go out on patrol and you’re solving that problem and you’re thinking about this and your brain is going a hundred miles an hour and one of the weird things was in 2007 I had five casualties in my platoon - none of them were killed but some were badly injured - and that was one of the worst parts of the tour - evacuating them, going to the casualty evacuation chain, dealing with all their kit, seeing the injuries they had. Then they got on the helicopter and they vanish from your collective consciousness because although you hope they are all right, you don’t have time to think any more than that. Your brain just moves on to the next problem. It’s not until you get back to Britain you find your ability to process the information, I’ve got these people here to focus on.
There’s a saying that there’s no greater feeling in life than to be shot at without result and it’s so true and a big part of it is that it won’t happen to me. Statistically, everyone who goes out there is more likely to come back uninjured than they are to be injured. You just think it won’t happen to us.
But if people get too het up about near misses then it’s not the job for them. There’s a lot of near misses. There was a soldier come back from our battalion who had a bullet pass literally through the back of his neck - it missed the spine by 3mm. One platoon sergeant was shot in the face. It passed through his cheekbone and came out his neck. He was fine. Stringer had five bullet holes in his body armour which means the kit works. People are having lucky escapes every day.
There’s a perfectly good reason why I didn’t get any more injured than I did and why I didn’t get any less. It’s just one of those things that happens to you. As long as you understand that and don’t get worked up about it, you’ll be all right.
(Interview by Lynda Abbott, Sophie Clayson and Louise Hays, September 2010.)
Denys’s nephew, Philip Mileham, has collected a considerable amount of information about his uncle Denys, an RAF pilot who was killed in April 1942.
‘My uncle Denys was one of 3 brothers and 3 sisters, the children of Edgar and Irene Mileham. He was born in December 1919 and grew up in Boxmoor at Old Fishery House, quite a substantial house at the end of Old Fishery Lane and adjacent to the canal. He had a comfortable childhood. His father worked as a solicitor in London and the family employed 2 maids. The area was much less built up than nowadays and there was a lot of freedom to run round and ride his bicycle. There was a pony in the paddock behind the house. Denys, who was known as Den in the family, got up to all sorts of adventures. For example he was friendly with members of the Brock family who manufactured fireworks. This enabled Den and his friends to make ‘bombs’ with gunpowder and drop them from bridges over the canal.
‘He went to Berkhamsted School at the age of 13 and in 1938, aged 18, he joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, the RAF equivalent of the Territorial Army. It must have felt like an exciting thing to do. A lot of young men joined the reservists as tension was building and war obviously looming in the late 1930s. He learned to fly at Luton which was a small grass airfield in those days. As a qualified pilot he was mobilised as soon as war broke out in September 1939 and joined the RAF full time. He flew Lysanders during his first proper operational activities, planes that were used routinely for taking messages, dropping passengers off, reconnaissance etc. There were also joint exercises with the army though there was evidently some tension between this organisation and the RAF. A photo from the time entitled ‘Army Cooperation’ shows the RAF chaps sitting in the back of an army lorry with one of them giving a surreptitious V sign.
‘Den was 6ft 2 inches, well above average height and photos show him well-dressed in the flying equipment of the day, including warm boots. The planes had no heating and there is a drop of 1 degree in temperature for every 600 ft in the air. When flying at 20,000 feet it must have been very cold. He loved his car and also dancing. It was a good way to meet girls. His enthusiasm for life and sense of fun are evident in his letters. For example he used a streamer* to communicate with his parents. He would fly low over their house and drop messages and even his laundry. On at least one occasion he flew so low that he clipped the top off a tree. One message simply said, ‘I have been posted at last. Whoopee!’ On one occasion a local bus driver called Mr Goss was alarmed to observe a low flying plane dropping a package that landed in the chicken run of Old Fishery House. He reported the incident to a tank officer and after investigation it was established that ‘an RAF officer had dropped the message of some importance to a local resident.’ The incident was reported in the Gazette under the headline, ‘Plane Drops Mystery Parcel’. The streamer became a memento to his parents after Den’s death. One package was wrapped in a fragment of a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster. Thousands of these were printed but not released as they were intended to be used in case of invasion and were later destroyed. It was thought that only one original copy existed but Den obviously had at least part of one.
‘Den flew to France in May 1940, a difficult period during the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk. He was there for a week during which most of his friends were killed. After the general chaos of these events his Flight was re-formed at West Malling in Kent.
‘In July 1940 he converted from Lysanders to Spitfires and was brought down from his station in the north of England to take part in the Battle of Britain as part of 41 Squadron. His squadron had at least 2 claims to fame. The Squadron Leader was a chap called Findlay who was a hurdler and had taken part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Also, 41 Squadron was the first to claim 100 kills in the Battle of Britain. Some of his combat reports from this time are included below.
‘In February 1941 Den was sent to Grangemouth in Scotland to train other pilots. The reason is not clear but he was an experienced pilot by now and would have passed on his knowledge to others. Also pilots needed to be rested after the stress of battle. His letters from this time complain of the cold, especially as the showers only had cold water. He also really missed his squadron and found the experience quite miserable. He was then moved to Wales where he trained Neville Duke who later became a fighter ace and broke the world land speed record flying a jet plane.
‘In March 1942 he was posted to 234 Squadron, a Danish squadron which included several British pilots. He was a Flight Commander (in charge of a Flight of 4 aircraft). He wrote to his parents saying that, ‘The boys in the squadron are a good crowd so a I am pretty happy.’ His last letter referred to his brother Frank who had been fighting the Japanese in Malaya and was in Singapore when it fell. He and about 20 others decided not to surrender. They hid for about 10 days and then got a boat to Sumatra and finally made it to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Den had just heard that his brother was still alive. It must have been a huge relief to know that Frank was alive after he has been missing for 3 months.
‘On April 15th 1942 his squadron set out to escort a bombing raid on Cherbourg. On the return journey two planes were shot down over the Channel, one of which was Den’s.
'According to No 234 Squadron Operational Record Book, Form 540, 15 Apr 1942:
'"The Squadron gave close escort to nine Boston Aircraft in attack on Cherbourg harbour. Six of our Aircraft were attacked as they left the target and by Me. 109s. F/Lt. Mileham and P/O. Simon are missing from this operation. Subsequent searching by our aircraft and Lysanders failed to report anything of interest."
'According to the Operational Record Book he took off from RAF Ibsley at 15.55 in Spitfire Vb AB987. From lists of Luftwaffe claims in the area, it seems likely that he was shot down by either Oblt. Egon Mayer or by Uffz. Werner Beckers of 7./JG 2.
‘His parents received a telegram saying that he was missing and that a letter would follow. Five days later a letter came from the Air Ministry indicating that they did not know what had happened to Den. There was still a chance that he had survived and he could be a prisoner of war. An agonising wait followed until six months later they were notified that all efforts to trace him had failed and he was presumed dead. He was 22 years old.’
*A streamer was a brightly coloured (in this case blue, yellow and red stripes) strip of cloth with a weighted pocket at one end. Messages could be put into the pocket and the streamer dropped from an aircraft.
(Interview by Pippa Carr, October 2011.)
What I can tell you about Joseph Keen is he was born in 1920 and he was one of the first intake of pupils to Hemel School. Joe was born in Kings Langley at a butcher’s shop, no. 2 the High Street, which is still a butcher’s shop. When he left school he went to work for his father in the shop until the outbreak of war. He would have been 19 years old then and immediately conscripted into the army. In one of the letters he sent home he said, ‘I’m fed up with the sand and the flies. I’d much rather be at home chopping up meat.’ Unfortunately he didn’t come back from North Africa. I can remember this tall guy in my grandma’s house. She lived in an old house at the bottom end of Vicarage Lane in Kings Langley with low doors. I can picture him standing in the living room in front of the door and the (top of the) door was level with his eye line. He must have been 6ft 2 inches or more. He had two sisters who were seven and five years older than him.
He was a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps. He brought supplies from the port or whereever they were landed, out to the troops on the front line. I can remember my Dad reading one of Joe’s letters saying they had sandbags on the floor of the cab underneath them in case they hit a mine and it exploded. It would take some of the blow. But in fact that’s exactly what happened to him. He drove over a mine and was fatally wounded and died about a week later.
I have a few letters from him and to him. They don’t say much; just I’m missing everybody and that sort of thing. They were stamped by the censor so you couldn’t just say anything you liked. You got the famous blue pencil put through. They put the equivalent of a felt tip pen through anything they didn’t like. The letters took anything from 6 to 8 weeks to arrive as they were sent by sea so you could get a letter from Joe saying I’m Fine, everything’s okay and you know he was okay about 6 weeks ago but what’s happened in between times you don’t know. One letter thanks his Mum for sending a parcel with a cake in it. Sadly, after 2 months on board a ship it was mouldy but thanks all the same. One or two letters he received from my Mum were sent back with personal belongings. He would have had them in his kit when he was killed. He also had 3 penknives for some reason and a little lucky charm, a silver boot that came back with his belongings. Unfortunately not all that lucky. There was also one letter that I wrote him - the first letter I ever wrote and the last he received.
My grandparents received two telegrams, one to say he was wounded and another about ten days later to say he had died of his wounds. I was about 5 years old. I can remember the whole family going down to grandma and granddad’s house and even though I didn’t realise what death was or anything like that I could still sense the grief and sadness. I couldn’t understand really what was going on. It’s the only time that I saw my Mum cry.
I went over there (to Tunisia) about 8 years ago. I just wanted to see what was left of him. I wish I’d gone earlier when my Mum was alive, though I showed her the pictures and so on. I made a sketch of his headstone.
The effect on the family was pretty devastating. My grandfather died about five years later in his mid-fifties. It was said he never really got over the loss of his son. He was the only son. Fathers built up businesses in those days for the benefit of their family and hoped to pass it on to a son. He just gave up after that.
You learn about wars and battles and dates and who did this and who won that but nobody talks much about the devastation it brings to families. That’s what memorials are for. They’re not for the guys who have been killed but try and make people remember and think about what these guys went through and what their families went through.
(Information sent by individual, January 2013.)
THE EARLY WAR YEARS; 1940- 1943
July 1940 saw me leave the world of the classroom and enter the workplace. We had seen the evacuation from Dunkirk; the German advance through Europe and the Battle of Britain. The world was in turmoil. Not the sort of time to be looking for a job especially with the prospect of being called up into the army in two years time. Besides who would want to employ a young boy just out of school with no experience and no long-term prospects. So for the August and September of that year, despite the threat of invasion and the general uncertainty, I spent the time with my friends playing tennis most days and with glorious weather for the majority of the time, out in the local countryside enjoying ourselves oblivious to the perilous situation which hung over the country. I cannot remember being the least bit worried about the uncertain future. During those months, together with my friend from school Bill Thomas, I did reluctantly go for an interview in London about employment with London Transport. Needless to say they had nothing to offer us.
My father became rather fed up seeing his eldest son, now the possessor of a School Certificate with several credits, swanning around, cadging a few bob here and there, being fed, clothed and housed at his expense. I was having too good a time to be unduly worried. I wasn't alone in this as very few of my compatriots had managed to get any kind of employment. My girl friend Gladys did eventually manage to get work at the L M S R Headquarters at the Grove in Watford, possibly because her father also worked there. Bill Thomas ended up in the local branch of the National Westminster Bank. I though wasn't all that bothered.
Dad arrived home from work one evening and informed me that there was a job for me at the main Post Office in town. He knew the Head Postmaster, Mr Houchen. An interview had been arranged for me the following morning. My heart sunk the only jobs that I knew about at the Post Office were those for Postmen and Telegraph Messenger boys. My time at the Grammar School had been inclined to make me feel a little above my station (we were after all working class) and perhaps a bit of a snob. How was I going to face my friends and explain to them that I was going to be a Telegraph Messenger boy? At that time I couldn't even ride a bike, one of the essentials for the job. My father was to be obeyed, no questions asked. There were no arguments. I meekly went for the interview and was accepted for a job as a temporary Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist. I started the following Monday, the beginning of October 1940. It was classed as a temporary post as during the war years there were no permanent appointments made within the Civil Service. Anyhow I now had a job and would be earning some money, albeit not very much. At least I was now gainfully employed much to my father's relief. I can't remember my mother having anything to say about the matter at all.
The first two weeks at the Post Office were spent alone in a small room with several sets of pigeonholes and several large racks of cards with the names of towns and counties in Great Britain. These I had to sort into the correct boxes. From time to time throughout the day someone would come in to check to see how I was progressing. I was lonely and I was bored. What had I let myself in for? I must have satisfied someone because I was soon let loose in the sorting office to sort invoices. There was however variations to this monotonous rather boring work because the afternoons were spent in what was known as the Telegraph Office. It consisted of a small room with two telephones. I had to write down telegrams as they were dictated to me over the phone and prepare them for delivery. A simple task on the face of it, but you had to know how to spell and with handwriting as shocking as mine I found the job very stressful. In charge was Mr Blackman, an elderly gentleman brought back from retirement, who was very understanding and helpful. I suppose I did these jobs for a week or so and then came the biggest shock to the system that I had so far experienced. I came to work one morning to be told that I was to be put on counter duties from now on with overtime in the sorting office in the evenings. It was all work and no play. My friends had by now drifted away not to be seen again. All of the male counter staff had been conscripted into the Armed Forces. Those few remaining, who were assigned to the most senior duties, consisted of men over forty. The postmen were mainly veterans of the Great War. Several married women had been employed to fill the gaps. I was assigned to work on the counter selling stamps and paying pensions and allowances alongside a fat short-tempered woman with bad breath .She was supposed to teach me. For some reason she hated me and really gave me a hard time. I had to pick up what I could
The most money I had ever seen up to then was a 10 shilling note that a generous relative had once given me. Now I had the responsibility of paying out several hundred pounds a day. It was a matter of work and more work. A far cry from the sunlit tennis courts, country walks and lying under bushes with my girl friend of a few months ago. By now the Blitz, was ravaging London, just 22 miles from Hemel Hempstead. The air raid warning sounded most evenings and nights were spent sleeping in the cellars below our house along with neighbours and whoever else could squeeze in. Work in the sorting office for some reason increased. Women staff was reluctant to work overtime in the evenings and consequently I found myself on duty sometimes at 6.00 am through to 10.00pm. I was not yet seventeen but shouldering the responsibilities normally given to men with years of experience. There was no respite at weekends either as I was obliged to join the Post Office Home Guard, which paraded on Sunday mornings in the Post Office yard. The Head Postmaster was the officer in charge of the contingent. I was issued with a military uniform complete with boots. I was also given a rifle, which I kept at home. I had never seen a gun in my life and I was scared stiff of it. I still dislike guns intensely. Some Sunday evenings I also had to take my turn at fire watching on the flat roof at the back of the sorting office. There was not much time for fun and games or getting up to teenage pranks. Most of the time I was too tired for anything like that. I just had to get on with it. Dances and visits to the pictures with friends were out of the question. To rebel would have landed me in a great deal of trouble, not only at work but at home as well. The pay was, in today's terms, a mere pittance. I can't remember exactly how much but it wasn't much over £1 a week. It didn't really matter as there was very little to buy and most of it anyhow went to my mother for my keep.
Gradually the handling of money on the counter became second nature to me and I found the work enjoyable, especially the contact with the public. There were moments when the War came closer to us. Often at night, whilst sorting letters, the power would fail and we had to complete the sorting of evening mail by candlelight. After work I had to cycle home often in the pitch dark, as there was no street lighting, wearing a tin hat and carrying my gas mask. One wet winter evening I braked to avoid a bus that had stopped to pick up passengers, I skidded and landed underneath it, only to hear the bell ring as I lay there. Fortunately someone saw my plight and I was pulled from under the bus together with my bike just in time. A voice with a thick American accent came from the darkness and asked if I was OK. He had picked up my bike which had somehow escaped from being crushed under the wheels of the bus. He wheeled it home for me and made sure that I was not injured before he left. For his good deed he got a cup of tea and a “thank you “from my father.
There were several of the older staff still left, Miss Miller, a spinster in her forties, Mr Loosemore who became Head Postmaster and Mr Cooper, a little very neat man with wonderful copperplate handwriting. Their duties were mostly on the supervisory level. As long as you did your work to the best of your ability they were happy and did nothing to interfere. The time for call up came closer. I was called for a medical examination to St Albans and asked for my preference. Army, Air Force or Navy. I really didn't have any choice as being in the Post Office I was destined for the Royal Corps of Signals. My eighteenth birthday arrived in September 1942 but the Post Office decided that my Call Up was to be deferred until after the end of the year so that I could help with the Christmas rush. Finally in January 1943 I received the letter telling me that I was to report to an Army training depot at Prestatyn, North Wales on the 3rd February.
Before I left for the Army I received the following letter from Mr Blackman the retired gentleman that I had worked alongside when I first started work at the Post Office:
32 George Street, Hemel Hempstead
Feby 2nd 1943
Dear Mr (Pat) Smith
My best wishes go with you to the Army on Thursday and may it be a point of real opening for you, away from parcel pitching or letter sorting, even from the sound of a mechanised “telegrapher” so that when the War is over Hemel Hempstead may appear too small to hold your aims. I had hoped to have been able to wish you Good Fortune in person but as the doctor described it as this little fellow‘Germ Influenza’ with his legions of Corpuscles following.
So once more my very best of wishes