Bombs dropped in the ward of: Knightsbridge and Belgravia
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Knightsbridge and Belgravia:
- High Explosive Bomb
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
Memories in Knightsbridge and Belgravia
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by DOUGLAS ROTHERY (BBC WW2 People's War)
Chapter IV - Royal Encounters
In between the 24hr guard duties, other training continued, be it P.T. Weapon training, Education, First aid and of course Ordinary drill and Fatigues etc., every moment of the day was accounted for.
It wasn't many days after my Bank Guard that I noted with pride and panic, my name down on Daily Details for Buckingham Palace Guard. I was conversant with the procedural drill on arrival at the Palace, the changing, the double sentry drill on the pavement outside the railings of the palace whenever their Majesties were in residence etc., but wasn't so sure of the forming up on the square of my particular guard. I knew that I would have to 'Bloody Well Soon Find Out', so I discreetly watched the next Guard mount from a safe distance, (not allowed to stand and stare). But it didn't give me much confidence, because as soon as the order by the Sergeant Major was given,
'GET Ooooooon Parade'!
all that I could see was a mass of scarlet tunics and Bearskins criss- crossing in quick time trying to get to their respective Guards, St James Palace Guard being the senior followed by the Buckingham Palace Guard then the Waiting Guard, which parades in abeyance to replace those deemed as not suitably turned out by the inspecting officers. I rather despondently crept away not looking forward to my initiation and can only hope I don't have to learn by my mistakes.
On the day of my inauguration the Drummer blew the call to warn those who were for guard duty, finishing with a call called "TAPS the words of such known universally throughout the Brigade as "Youve Got A Face Like A Chickens Arse" thus reminding you that you have 20minutes before parade.
One of my chums gave me the once over before I gingerly make my way down the stone stairway trying not to crack the highly polished uppers of my boots, rifle in one hand, kit bag containing cleaning materials etc. suitably labelled for Buck House in the other for it to be taken their by transport. In all of this time, the band has been playing some known and some unknown airs, of which I am in no mood to appreciate. The officers of respective Guards, are patrolling up and down, also the Sergeant Major. Briefly all goes quiet, the next moment pandemonium when the Sergeant Major coming to a halt, bellowed out.
'GET Ooooooon Parade'!
This is it!
My heart misses a beat as I become part of this mass stampede in quick time, also trying to figure out where my guard marker is whilst at the same time trying to protect the precious hours of spit and polish on my size 11's from some other clumsy clots. These problems intermingled with orders being shouted from about half a dozen different W/Officers, I eventually make it.-Phew!- Now steady down.
After the formalities of the dressings, the roll call etc, comes the fixing of bayonets. The right marker marches forward the regulatory paces to give the signals for the fix, another panic sets in 'Thinks' Did I replace the bayonet into its scabbard after giving it its final polish! Its too late to check now. The next moment the order was given (FIX )- Yees"-"Thank Goodness," so far so good. Now for the inspection by the Guard Officer and"his entourage, Company Sergeant Major, Sergeant and Corporal, whatever fault one of them misses the other will pick up, whilst the band plays some lilting music which helps to drown the expletives being afforded to some unfortunate.
We march out to the usual tune on leaving barracks then to a stirring march to which we rightly and so proudly swagger along to, our hearts swelling with pride in the knowledge that we are the envy of the world. Somewhere along the route the guard W/Officer gave the command 'Escort to the colour' and being already briefed on what to do, I double out to the RH side of the road as part of that escort. whereupon on nearing Buckingham Palace we are recalled back into the ranks
.My first Stag [Guard Mount] was outside the front gates of the palace and I felt very proud and privileged yet at the same time extremely apprehensive after a warning from a experienced old sweat not to allow any of the public to stand by your side for photograph sessions as this could find its way not only for publication but also Regimental scrutiny looking for lack of poise or posture etc; also to be alert for the authoritive Regimental spy within passing taxi's, so with this in mind, no sooner had a damsel or anyone else posed themselves by my side for a photo, I would start patrolling [Spoil Sport].
On returning to barracks the next day someone called out that the official photographer was downstairs, so being still in guard uniform I took advantage of this opportunity which I believe cost me 2/6d (12&1/2p) including frame, which my parents were to proudly display.
Back to the varied training, where within a few days I had my first St James Palace Guard, which was fascinating , because the ceremony of the Changing of the Guard is in the courtyard within the palace overlooked by the balcony from which all historical proclamations are made. My patrolling on one of the sentry posts was under an archway, where, over the many years, the tip of the sentries bayonet had cut deep grooves into the stone roof. I bet that could tell a few stories!
My father being an ex soldier of the 4th Queens Own Hussars, gave me the following advice as I was leaving home to join up.
'Never volunteer for anything'.
But when volunteers were requested with the promise of a day off duty if we took part in an experimental inoculation, well, that was too good to miss! Three days later I was allowed out of bed! Never again, the shaking, aching and vomiting, we never found out what it was for but rumour had it that it was an anti malaria experiment. My advice is:
'Never volunteer for anything'.
Went out with the three musketeers, (whom I have already introduced), they
being older serving soldiers were in possession of civilian clothes passes. These could be applied for once you had served 12 months in the battalion, I still had 9months to go, this would then entail buying a suit (I am afraid that my 50/- (2 Pound 50p) one wouldn't pass the required standard on all counts). It must be smart and of a specified design and colour then inspected and approved by the Adjutant, anyway, I wasn't financially embellished at this short period of service to be able spread my limited retainer to cater for such extravagance. After wandering around Hyde Park and Speakers Corner, we decided to quench our thirst in a nearby Public house. The three six footers plus in their civilian clothes and wearing the traditional trilby hats (head gear must be worn), were the first to enter amid a buzz of verbal activity, which immediately ceased until I in uniform went over to join them. It was noticeable that, had there been any nefarious deals taking place, my presence must have assured them that we were not the 'BILL' but just the 'BILL BROWNS.'
I learnt it was common practice on returning to Barracks to bring back a fruit pie for the Guard Commander, this would be discreetly placed near the Tattoo report whilst being marked in, in the hope that this sweetener would be acceptable, especially if you were not quite within the second of the three essential conditions, namely (1) clean (2) sober and (3) properly dressed in uniform- alternately civilian clothes.
Professional jealousy would surface mostly between the Senior Warrant Officers of either Coldstream or Grenadiers regarding Regimental history, if the opportunity should arise. Such came the opportunity, when both battalions happened to be drilling at the same time on their respective halves of the square. R.S.M. Brittian of the Coldstream, (reputed at that time to have the loudest voice in the British army) bellowed out to his men (not as a compliment I may add) that they were drilling like a squad of Grenadiers. This was responded to with equal uncomplimentary fervour from R.S.M. Sheather of the Grenadiers. Apart from this light-hearted bantering, it never showed itself in any other way.
Other than our usual drill or musketry training, a few hours each week were spent on Stretcher Bearing (SB) courses, and the order of dress for this parade was Khaki Service dress and not Canvas Fatigue. On this particular occasion we were informed in the usual manner, i.e. Daily Details, that S.B's would parade at a certain time. After forming up on parade, the unfortunate Sergeant reprimanded us for not being in Canvas Fatigue. It was explained to him that Service dress was the usual uniform for Stretcher Bearers, whereas he had interpreted the S.B. as 'Spud Bashing' [ Potatoe Peeling] a well known term by all, especially the miscreants. (I might add that he wasn't allowed to live that down very easily among his fellow compatriots for quite some time)!
Guard duties were on average two per week, so I was now pretty conversant with the procedures, also the many different sentries orders for each of the various guard posts around the Palaces. One such order, among the many, at the front of Buckingham Palace was to keep prostitutes away from the railings, a task the Police on the gates, knowing the ones that come to ploy their trade, would soon sort out, also the onlookers obstructing your beat whereby a sharp tap on the ankles from a size 11 was the same interpretation in any language!
I was now entitled to a well earned rest, which was granted in the form of 10 days furlough where on arrival home after the customary greetings, the next question invariably would be, 'When do you go back'? This was the last thing you wish to be reminded of.
When it was time to return, I fortunately met another Grenadier Guardsman from my battalion at the railway station, who, although from a different Company we knew each other by sight. He spoke in an educated Oxford accent, smartly dressed in civilian clothes, bowler hat, brigade tie and carried a neatly rolled umbrella. On entering the carriage he rang the service bell and ordered a couple of whiskies which helped to dispel the gloom of departure. He then told me that he had already received 7 days C.B. for impersonating an officer. Apparently he, in his mode of dress, on returning one evening to Barracks was saluted by the sentry believing him to be an officer, and he in response acknowledged it by raising his hat (the normal response from an officer). This didn't go unnoticed by the Sergeant of the Guard, who didn't approve, neither did the Commanding officer. When we were nearing the barrack gate on return, he put the umbrella down his trouser leg and walked into the guardroom with a limp claiming that he had hurt himself whilst on leave, his explanation was accepted. Eventually he was to take up a commission in another Regiment and was subsequently killed in action. (Never volunteer etc. etc.)
Each Friday you could guarantee to having two boiled eggs for tea a ritual carried forward from my Depot days and no doubt from many years before. On this particular Friday, the eggs were unduly hard and black on being shelled, this therefore didn't satisfy most of the recipients who began to vent their anger by letting fly with eggs 'Properly Fired'. Before I had time to take cover the door suddenly opened and the Picquet officer plus escort marched in, thus restoring order. The men on being asked in the usual manner, ' Eeney Compleents'? several dared to respond. The Officer with the Master cook now in attendance seemed to agree there was reason to complain whereby no disciplinary action took place. Hereafter eggs were to be boiled on the day of consumption - only joking!. It was also the custom of having Prunes and Custard for Sunday's luncheon Sweet thus ensuring Regimental regularity!.
Now classed as an old soldier on double sentry duties, meant that I would be responsible for giving my sentry partner the regulatory signals for saluting and patrolling when called for on Palace guards etc. On one such occasion outside Buckingham Palace, at approx. 5am, therefore very light traffic and few pedestrians and no Police on the gates, along came a troop of 'Westminster Cowboys', these were Westminster refuse collectors, so called because they wore wide brimmed hats with the side brim turned up. They were no doubt reporting for work and as they drew level on their horse drawn carts, I signalled to my partner, with the regulatory three taps on the pavement with the butt of my rifle and we gave them the 'Present Arms', you should have seen their faces as they looked about in anticipation of seeing a member of the Royal family entering, you had to be very careful though, you never knew who might be watching.
Most complaints came from old retired officers who would walk past in civilian clothes for the sole purpose of getting a salute, so any civilian wearing a dark suit, bowler hat and carrying a neatly rolled umbrella, you took no chances and would salute giving them the benefit of the doubt. On another occasion a Troop of Household Cavalry were passing by on their way to Horse Guards Parade and I naturally Presented arms, they in response gave the customary eyes right and sounded the Royal salute on the trumpet, I was waiting for the officer to give the eyes front, he in turn was waiting for me to come down from the Present, eventually, as they got further and further away, I thought I had better do something, even if it meant waving goodbye, so I came down from the Present and he then gave eyes front, plus no doubt a few other chosen words, he being in the right. I was expecting to hear a complaint about this on returning to the Guardroom but it was not reported, misdemeanours committed on public duties warranted double punishment.
Later in the week one of my postings was at the rear of the Palace and before doing so the W/O of the guard, stated, 'He didn't want reports of 18ft guardsmen patrolling along by the perimeter wall'. Apparently this phenomenon was reported by a civilian in the street outside about a previous guard, where it was surmised a Guardsman had placed his Bearskin onto his bayonet on the end of his rifle and paraded it along the top of the wall.
For posterity I had better relate a rather amusing incident of Royal character whilst I was on that sentry. My post was near the stone steps leading down to the lawn. I heard children laughing and chasing each other, whence one of them a young girl of about 7 or 8yrs of age ran down the steps onto the gravel path of my beat. On recognising her to be Princess Margaret I Presented arms, she ran back up the steps to her sister giggling, no doubt bemused by the reception, repeated the performance.
whereupon I again Presented arms. I assumed she was about to do it again when I heard a male voice, whom I imagined was a member of the staff , usher them inside.
I heard of a not so Royal incident which occurred on Buck; Guard by a Guardsman Cosbab from our No2 Coy. Apparently during a very humid night, he had left his post and was discovered by the night patrol cooling off his feet in the water of the Victoria Memorial opposite, knowing him and his previous antics, I quite believe it. Although very likeable he was a proper Jekyll & Hyde character with a unpredictable devil may care attitude.
The lining of the street was part of our itinerary, which took place for the reception of His Majesty the King of the Belgians, Prince Michael of Romania, the openings of Parliament etc. etc. On one of these occasions because of the inclement weather, order was given to don capes. It was then revealed how the old sweats managed to square up their capes so precisely, when parts of cigarette packets etc. fluttered suspiciously to the ground. Another wheeze I was to learn was that the back tunic buttons were a tourist souvenir attraction, so it was wise not only to sew them on, but to thread a tape through the back of the buttons to help prevent this activity.
Contributed originally by Stephen Bourne (BBC WW2 People's War)
My Aunt Esther was a black working-class Londoner, born before World War 1. Her life spanned almost the entire century (1912 to 1994).
Her father, Joseph Bruce, settled in Fulham, west London, during the Edwardian era when very few black people lived in Britain. He came here from British Guiana (now Guyana) a colony in South America. He was a proud, independent man.
Aunt Esther left school at 14 to work as a seamstress and in the 1930s she made dresses for the popular black American singer Elisabeth Welch. After Joseph was killed during an air raid in 1941, Aunt Esther was 'adopted' by my (white) great-grandmother, Granny Johnson, a mother figure in their community.
Esther said, 'She was like a mother to me. She was an angel.' For the next 11 years Aunt Esther shared her life with Granny (who died in 1952) and became part of our family.
During World War 2, Aunt Esther worked as a cleaner and fire watcher in Brompton Hospital. She helped unite her community during the Blitz and having relatives in Guyana proved useful when food was rationed.
She said, 'Times were hard during the war. Food was rationed. Things were so bad they started selling whale meat, but I wouldn't eat it. I didn't like the look of it. We made a joke about it, singing Vera Lynn's song We'll Meet Again with new words, "Whale meat again!" Often Granny said, "We could do with this. We could do with that." So I wrote to my dad's brother in Guyana. I asked him to send us some food. Two weeks later a great big box arrived, full of food! So I wrote more lists and sent them to my uncle. We welcomed those food parcels.'
In 1944 the Germans sent doodlebugs over. Said Aunt Esther, 'When the engine stopped I wondered where it was going to drop. It was really frightening because they killed thousands of people. A doodlebug flattened some of the houses in our street. Luckily our house was alright, even though we lived at number thirteen!'
In the late 1980s I began interviewing Aunt Esther and in the course of many interviews I uncovered a fascinating life history spanning eight decades. Aunt Esther gave me first-hand accounts of what life was like for a black Londoner throughout the 20th century. A friendly, outgoing woman, my aunt integrated easily into the multicultural society of post-war Britain. In 1991 we published her autobiography, Aunt Esther's Story, and this gave her a sense of achievement and pride towards the end of her life. She died in 1994 and, following her cremation, my mother and I scattered her ashes on her parents' unmarked grave in Fulham Palace Road cemetery. Granny Johnson rests nearby.
Contributed originally by ageconcernbradford (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the People`s War site by Alan Magson of Age Concern Bradford and District on behalf of Malcolm Waters and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site`s terms and conditions.
The war against Germany was declared in 1939.
My parents had already separated, fortunate for me I stayed with my Father and my Sister Nora went with Mum.
Nora was really my half sister 6 years my senior yet I never looked on her other than my whole sister.
Nora’s name was Robinson, my Mother’s maiden name. Nora eventually left home to join a circus.
Dad, an ex regular soldier, who served with the Northumberland Fusiliers in the first world war, there was very little he could not put his hands to. He baked all our bread, a brilliant gardener, was a very good cook and kept our home spic and span.
Sadly he rarely talked about his life so I really never found out much about him. I know he was a Geordie and had a brother Billy, but what part of Newcastle I have no idea.
End of January 1940 was a very bad winter. Dad jumped off the running board of a bus, slipped and struck his head on the kerb. He had a stroke and died on the 10th February in St Johns Hospital, Keighley.
Going down Airwarth Street my Uncle Joe told me my Dad was dead. His last words were the start of my Christian name MAL then he passed on. I must emphasise the point my Dad was a brick, he lived for me. I did cry at night when I was alone, realising I would never see or hear his face or voice again.
My life changed so much that at times I lived with my schoolmate Ken Smith, we both worked in Edmondson`s Mill, Keighley as doffers. The foreman threw a bobbin at me as I was sat on a bobbin box and I threw as many back at him and got the sack.` I left to work in a steel works shovelling steel into a foundry, then I did some lumber jacking at Oakworth, Keighley. I ended up at Doublestones Farm in service above Silsden for the Fothergills. I spent six months from 5am until 11pm at night building walls, shearing sheep, dipping sheep, harnessing the horse, burying dead sheep, milking the cows, feeding and mucking out.
Keighley was normal, one hardly knew a war was on, working on a farm was even more remote. After six months farming, I asked Fothergill, can I go to Keighley Fair on Saturday afternoon. He said, “what am I going to do without you”. So I went to the fair and never returned to farming.
Mum and I went to London after the Blitz, even then night and day bombing was daily. You could hear the distinctive drone of Jerry as they gradually got nearer and the bombs got nearer. When we arrived in Fulham we had no money, looking for a Mrs Quinn who had left her flat leaving no forwarding address so Mum and I went knocking on doors until a Mrs Lampkin put us up. Mum was probably desperate having no money and no job. I must have been a burden to her.
I went to school at Ackmar Road with some of Mrs Lampkin’s boys. I adapted to life quickly and made the best of it. Mum then decided London was too dangerous, so she sent me to Ponterdawee South Wales as an evacuee. I well remember saying good bye to Mum stood on Paddington Station with my overcoat on, a label with my name and destination, my gas mask, identity card, ration books and teachers who were taking care of us. We arrived at night time in a schoolroom in Ponterdawee where our names were called out, a person stepped forward and took my hand a man and his son were my carers. I cannot remember their names, but his son was about my age so he taught me the ways of the Welsh. I quickly adapted getting free coal from the slag heaps. Taking the cows to the bull and getting diced cheese with brown sauce. I enjoyed my stay in Wales. I was treated very well.
Mum had established herself in Fulham she had a flat, then Nora came back into our lives again. She had blossomed into a bonny young woman who looked after me. At Ackmar Road schoolboys used to play pitch and toss, this was new to me as in Yorkshire gambling was not even on the cards. I can remember on Christmas going out singing carols to get Mum a Christmas card. She cried.
Nightly, the sirens went the whole sky was lit up with searchlights, I got fed up with getting out of bed. When Nora shouted of me to go down into the basement I said okay, you go on, I’ll follow you.
I could hear the bombers getting nearer and nearer, still lying in bed. Then I heard a whistling bomb that landed too close for comfort, my first reaction was to dive under the bed, my next reaction was to get down them stairs post haste. Nora was stood looking out of the back window, we were surrounded by buildings on fire. We were transfixed in awe at the blazing buildings, fire engine bells ringing, police cars whistles blowing, but we soon shot into the basement. Mum was on night work but the old lady always made us welcome. It got so bad at times we went to sleep on Piccadilly Station 75 feet below ground. Nora joined the ATS, I saw very little of her till later in life. One of the most frightening experiences was the mobile, ack ack guns that went off right outside our front door shaking all the windows. Most houses had stirrup pumps and buckets of sand just in case an incendiary came close.
Mum remarried a Peter Johnston from Tipperary In Ireland, he was an RSM in the Royal Engineers. He always respected me and was a real good family man, he always brought something home for me, but I am really a loyalist. I loved my own Father so much I could not accept another Dad, sad in a way, because he was a father of eight children who went in the Children’s Home in Keighley. They were all good children who’s mother fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Mum and I went to live in Townhead Glasgow to be near Peter who was stationed in Inverary. I went to school in Townhead I joined the Boys Brigade and was also a Lather Boy in a Barbers Shop. We got a bus from Robertson Street to Inverary went up the Rest and be thankful to arrive to see some real military movement. Assault craft, vehicles running backwards and forwards obviously getting ready to go to Dieppe. I slept in a huge bell tent while Mum and Peter went off to a Hotel. Peter was a very musical man he ran the Isle of Capri Band up Woodhouse, Keighley, an accordion and kazoo band who were very very good, they won many cups and shields, parading them around the Wood house Estate (pre War)
Back in London again in OngarRoad, Mum had a flat. Peter committed bigamy so Mum was on her own again. I remember going back to Keighley to spend my last days at Holycroft Board School, then back to London again. I got a job with the Civil Defence at Chelsea Town Hall and joined the London Irish Rifles Cadet Corps at Chelsea Barracks as a cadet soldier. As a messenger boy in the Civil Defence I cycled round the streets in uniform and my steel helmet on to various people of notoriety including the Chelsea Pensioners. Mum got a job in Peterborough looking after a man and his son, again his son was around my age, he was a brilliant young artist. He drew Peterborough Cathedral very professional. One day I went to Yewsley right next to the American Fortress Base. Looking up in the sky I could see and recognise a Jerry plane diving straight toward the street I was in. I ran like hell resting behind an Oak tree in a church yard watching the plane strafing the main street with cannon shelling, a close call.
I also worked in Dubiliers factory at Acton, making gallon petrol cans and we listened to " Music While you Work ". I also in Grosvenor House,Park Lane as a paticia`s assistant and the Americans occupied the hotel in the war years.
While in the Civil Defence I saw vapour trails of V2 rockets that landed somewhere toward Westminster. I went to Romford one night to stay at Harry`s, my mate`s house, as usual the sirens went moaning Minnie. It was like watching a film show looking over London with the bombers dropping canisters full of incendiaries. I commented to Harry, someone is getting a pasting, I found out Fulham had been hit again, a friend of Mum’s showed me his burnt shoes caused by kicking an incendiary out of the house. Everywhere was devastation, doors burned, windows blown. One chap, playing the piano had an incendiary pass through the roof straight between him and the piano into the next floor. I went to Putney one day, as normal, sirens sounded, my bus stopped on Putney Bridge, coming up the Thames was a V1, a buzz bomb, I watched it from the top deck coming right above the bus. The engine stopped. I watched it glide into a block of flats at Barns Bridge. I had the windows open, I felt the blast on my face from approximately half a mile away. One day I saw a squadron of 13 V1’s passing overhead in Gloucester Road, South Kensington.
The Army used to train on Harden Moor leaving unexploded bombs lying around. Two of my schoolmates playing with an unexploded PIAT bomb were blown to pieces in Lund Park, Keighley. Another friend Alec Joinson tried to saw through a grenade detonator, his face and arms were pitted with splinters he was covered in Sal volatile and was partially deaf.
I was very very lucky boy to be here to tell my story, I picked up a pop bottle that looked like bad eggs, fortunate for me I did not have a bottle opener so I through the bottle into a quarry. You should have seen the bright yellow phosphorous I’d picked up a Molotov cocktail, a phosphorous bomb.
Nora, my Sister, was in an air raid shelter that was hit and became flooded. She developed pneumonia then consumption. She spent many years in hospital and despite doctors warnings she had two children. At 43 neglected by her husband, she died and was cremated in Norwood Crematorium. She was a very very good mother who wasted away to a living skeleton. She spent many months in Brompton Hospital, I made all the funeral arrangements, the husband pleaded ignorance. I always enjoyed going to see her in London when I returned to Keighley later in life. I loved Nora very dearly and she never complained about all she suffered. Tommy Junior and Jenny still live in London, at Herne Hill. I occasionally call to see them.
The spirit of the Londoners in those dark days was second to none. We sang on the stations. I sang on Keighley Station when Ken Smith’s Father in Full Service marching order was off to Dieppe. Everyone sang “ wish me luck as you wave me goodbye” and “for a while we must part but remember me sweetheart “. Vera Lynne, Ann Shelton, Tommy Trinder, Arthur Askey, Flanagan and Allen and the Crazy Gang all made for good entertainment. Not forgetting George Formby and Grace Fields.
I am now 76 years old. Today I doubt the law would look on a single man like my Dad and the Gentleman in Wales as being capable of taking care of a family.
Contributed originally by Mike Hazell (BBC WW2 People's War)
By 1956 I was offered the chance to work on the Green Lines and I was in seventh heaven. No more running up and down stairs, the Green Lines were all single deck RF coaches then, and no more rushing to get fares in either. People only used the coaches to do longer journeys because the minimum fare was high in relation to the bus fares and with plenty of buses on the road; no-one caught a coach for short journeys. So the job was easier and the pay slightly higher, no wonder there was a waiting list to work on Green Lines. Your name didn’t even get on the list if you had a bad record so coach crews did tend to consider themselves just a wee bit superior to bus workers although we, at Staines, never soared to the dizzy heights as at Windsor Garage where a whole row of tables alongside the windows and radiators were reserved for coach crews while bus crews were expected to sit over the other side which was cold and draughty in winter and stifling hot in summer!
The regular passengers using Green Line coaches were different too — not better, just different. The rush hours tended to begin later, being comprised mostly of people working in offices and West End shops, business people, managers, stock brokers and the self employed. Many belonged to what we would call “the bowler hat brigade”, hailing the coach with a raised umbrella or dispatch case. We had one driver who loathed being waved to in this manner and his conductor got fed up with the driver moaning about it too. So, one day at a request stop in Knightsbridge, they slowed up to the unsuspecting gentleman holding out his copy of “The Times”, the conductor put out his hand, took the newspaper and the coach sped on its way leaving the city gent fuming on the pavement. Not that it was always easy to guess a man’s occupation by his manner of dress. One of my favourite passengers looked like a stoke broker, always carrying a smart, black dispatch case. He travelled regularly to Town for years till one day he opened his case and showed me the contents; several tobacco tins full of coloured chalks and a large homely packet of sandwiches. He was a pavement artist who had earned an income high enough to enable him to live in the “stock broker belt” and travel up to his pitch every day. His neighbours believed him to be a solicitor — which I suppose he was in a way.
I preferred the 701/702 roads best. There was so much to see going through London every day and more interesting characters among the passengers too. All the regular crews got to know the actor who lived in Bedfont — he always played a “heavy” with a mid-European accent and had a very good line in sly leers. I wouldn’t be surprised if he originated that well worn phrase, “Ve haf ways of makink you talk” because that was just the sort of character he usually portrayed. In actual fact he was a charming man and used to sit on the coach reading his script and I still smile, remembering the time a woman sitting across the aisle asked me whether he was “peculiar” because of the evil expressions that flitted across his face while he was reading! Not wishing to reveal his identity and subject him to the attentions of all the film fans on the coach I told her to sit on the back seat and I would keep an eye on him. He was recognised a couple of times while travelling home and I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him being obliged to sign autographs and answer dozens of questions when he so obviously wanted to study in peace. Another actor was starring in a series on the television and played the handsome, debonair hero forever rescuing the damsel in distress and engaging in fist fights while remaining cool as a cucumber. Sad to say, he was irritable, petulant and terrified if the driver tried to speed up a little in an attempt to keep to the timetable — the very last person I would want around in any kind of crisis. He must have been a very good actor, though — it never showed through on the screen.
The responsibility for time keeping on the road is shared between the driver and the conductor and it isn’t an easy job to keep the vehicle on time, especially through London. By the time we had been stuck in traffic jams through Chiswick, Hammersmith, Kensington, Knightsbridge, Hyde Park Corner and Victoria we were frequently up to an hour late and if the driver didn’t push the coach along through the rest of the journey we would arrive at Gravesend with only a few minutes of our meal relief left. Union rules and police regulations dictate that a driver must have at least thirty minutes away from the driving seat which meant that a late arrival at Gravesend resulted in a late departure on the return journey. You couldn't win a race against time like that and still do the job properly.
In contrast, the very early and late journeys would seem endless — we had to cruise along so slowly that the passengers would sometimes get impatient and complain that we were deliberately running late. We used to hang about at compulsory stops, pull up to the side of the road at public toilets, engage a passenger in conversation as he or she was alighting -—anything to waste a few minutes that would prevent us arriving at a turning point early enough to be booked. We were allowed a leeway of two minutes and on Winter Sundays all the stops approaching Victoria would have a Green Line parked up, out of sight, losing time before arriving at Eccleston Bridge which was our London Terminus. The drivers used to curse the traffic lights at all hours of the day and night — they were always showing red when we were desperately trying to catch up lost time and green when we were anxious to lose it. For the most part the road inspectors were very understanding. They had almost invariably been drivers themselves earlier in their careers and knew how difficult it was to keep strictly to the timetable. Of course, drivers varied in their approach to the job and a few would deliberately run late so that they could claim overtime at the end of every day. The rate for all overtime has always been time and a half and a daily docket for an hour would amount to seven and a half extra hours pay every Friday.
For the most part, I have been very lucky with my regular drivers who did their best to run by the timetable. One such was Roy, a good, steady driver, conscientious, courteous and an excellent mate but the timing of the vehicle obsessed him to such an extent that he not only checked on our own progress every ten minutes along the road but also other Green Lines we met coming the other way. I thought his wife was joking when she told me she gave him a new leather strap for his pocket watch every Christmas but I subsequently discovered it was quite true, he pulled that watch from his top pocket so often in the course of a day’s work that the strap became quite ragged and worn by the following November. Dear Roy — I was sorry to lose him but I returned to work after my holiday one year to find that he had transferred to a vacant place on the coach rota. Another conductor told me later that Roy was worrying so much at my habit of signing on at the last moment that his fear of running late was threatening to give him a peptic ulcer. He retired some years ago and, presumably, he and his watch enjoy a well-earned rest.
Cliff, however, was a real maverick: transferred from Central Buses when he moved into the Staines area, he thought Country Buses were very slow and tame after the more hectic work in London’s traffic and was overjoyed when he was transferred to Green Lines and took Roy’s place on the rota. No two drivers could have been more different — working a journey through Town in the rush hours with Cliff became a cross between a tank assault course and a Cavalry charge. He really was an excellent driver who knew the length and width of those old RF coaches down to the last inch; he would slide through gaps in the traffic which didn’t look wide enough to allow the safe passage of a mini car and I swear there was often barely the width of a postage stamp between us and the rest of the traffic as we sailed through. He took short cuts through side streets, jumped traffic lights and we went two miles off route chasing a lorry whose driver had the temerity to “carve him up” at Hammersmith Broadway. The six months I spent with Cliff put years on me but, oddly enough, most of the regulars enjoyed riding with him. He could be curt, even downright rude, with those passengers who did not realise that he was doing his best to get them to their destinations on time and accused him of reckless driving or giving them an uncomfortable ride. But he had a very soft spot for the elderly and old ladies adored him as he was always at his most charming with them. Our friendship continued beyond working hours and Bill and I frequently went to his house for an evening of playing cards and the two men would talk “shop” while Cliff’s pretty, young wife and I served up refreshments and chatted about bus work too, but in relation to what ill effects it could have on family life.
With men and girls working together for eight hours every day and sometimes far into the night, there were bound to be some marital problems among the staff and Staines Garage was neither better nor worse than any other. With the cost of living and living standards themselves constantly rising, more and more wives started to go out to work, and this created a situation where working times of the two jobs clashed to such an extent that married couples spent very little time together; when a driver was on late turn his wife would get up and go off to her own job, often leaving him still in bed and having to cook his own meals before leaving for work himself in the early afternoon. By the time his duty had finished it might be midnight and his wife and children already fast asleep in bed. This state of affairs would result in a man seeing far more of his conductor than he did his own family, and when that conductor was a pretty, young girl the result was almost inevitable. Sometimes the outcome of such entanglements was tragic and at other times highly comical — at least from the viewpoint of those of us who watched the game from the sidelines as it were. Suspicious wives would lurk around the garage or take to riding on their husband’s buses in an attempt to ward off the opposition — and gossip was rife.
After Cliff left, to return to living and working in London again, I was approached by one driver who had been working with a jolly girl in her late teens and asked me if he could come and work with me instead. I was rather puzzled at the time as he and his former mate seemed to get on so well, but I knew he was a good driver and easy to get along with so I agreed. Within days he told me why he had decided to change rotas. Some dear, kind soul had told his wife that he was having an affair with his young conductor and his life at home had been hell ever since. It wasn’t very flattering to think that he had decided that working with me would solve his problems and I didn’t relish the prospect of coming to work to be confronted by an irate wife, but I did feel sorry for him and decided to give it a try. Unfortunately for me, I must be a perfect mother or sister figure for I found myself listening to many tales of various drivers’ private lives over the years — in fact one, who worked with me over a period of five years or more, frequently called me “Auntie Doris” and the name stuck. Perhaps I should feel flattered in a way after all?
In any case, I settled down with Harry quite easily — he was a happy-go-lucky man in his early fifties — already a proud grandfather and we both hoped that his change of conductor would have the desired effect on his home life. I never actually met his wife so presumably she must have received some pretty unflattering reports about my appearance and decided that I constituted no danger to her. For a few weeks all went well, Harry and I would chat about our children — his being a lot older than my own were at that time, about bus work — he had several years more service than I had too and we swapped stories about passengers and other crews and generally got on together quite well. Till the day came he put his name down for rest day working and found he had been given a duty with his former conductor.
I suppose a wiser man would have turned down the duty, but he had volunteered for rest day work because he needed the extra money and decided to do it anyway and say nothing to his wife. A few days later the storm broke and life became hell again. It was almost certainly another member of staff who stirred up the trouble by gossiping again and I can only hope that the result of his actions didn’t trouble his conscience too much. Deciding that life at home had become unbearable Harry finally left his family — there was a divorce and he returned to his former mate again and they eventually married. When she left to have a child I worked with Harry again for a few months. He was quite happy with his young wife but distressed that some of his children saw only his first wife’s side of the problem and cut themselves off from him altogether. Added to this was his fear that the age gap between himself and his second wife might cause her to be left with a young family if anything untoward happened to him. They had three children over the next few years and then his worst fears were realised and a series of heart attacks finally caused his death and his young family had a very lean time of it until the children left school and were able to go out to work. I met his widow only a few weeks ago and we chatted about old times — she misses Harry dreadfully and no one has taken his place yet.
Another romance that caused quite a stir in Staines Garage at the time involved a good looking young bachelor driver and a very attractive girl — a Staines conductor. Perhaps I should explain that bus and coach crews came into contact with several other garage canteens — including the Alder Valley canteen in High Wycombe, the Country Bus canteens at Windsor, Dartford and Northfleet and Central Bus canteens at Victoria and Thornton Heath. The driver fell in love with our young conductor when she used the canteen at his garage and decided to transfer to Staines to get to know her better. He was somewhat disconcerted to discover that she not only had several boy friends at our garage but ardent admirers in every other canteen we used. The atmosphere grew rather tense for some months and rumour had it that not a few fights broke out between the newcomer and the locals till the lass finally solved the problem by transferring to Northfleet and marrying a driver down there. The rivals became the best of friends and peace reigned in Staines once again.
Other romances blossomed and died over the years, few culminating in weddings between crewmembers, but one wife in particular solved her marital problem in a very neat way. She told her driver husband that she had got a new job and duly left home every morning at 7.30 a.m. arriving home again around 6.30 each evening. This went on for a couple of weeks until the day came when she arrived at the garage in uniform and reported for duty. I wasn’t around in the garage that day but I’d love to have seen the expression on his face when she walked into the canteen while he was having a cup of tea with the object of his affections. To cap it all, it has always been the policy of the Transport Board to put married couples on the same duties unless specifically requested otherwise: the husband decided that discretion was the better part of valour and accepted the inevitable. Within a few days they were acting like a couple of turtle doves — he was so proud of her strategy that he was the one who would tell newcomers about it. They stayed at the garage together for several years before leaving the job when they moved out of the district.
Contributed originally by People of the Nothe Fort and Weymouth Museum (BBC WW2 People's War)
1939 FRANCE AND HOME
Together with my Mother, Sister and one set of Grandparents, I went to Aix-Les -Bains, near Lyons, Southern France for my Summer holidays. I was aware of the rumours of war. In fact I was fascinated by seeing French soldiers with their first war uniforms of grey, old rifles and horse drawn field guns moving up to the Magino line. I had my tenth birthday out there.
As the war approached, my mother and Grandparents became worried, and decided to return to England. After some difficulty, they managed to book two sleepers and a bunk for me on the last train for Paris on the night of 1st September. I did not sleep very well that night as I was sharing a sleeper on the lower bunk, with a Frenchman who would not open the window and smoked smelly Sharrots all night.
We arrived in Paris early the next morning. We went to a hotel for breakfast then caught a train to Calais. We caught one of the last Cross Channel ferries to Folkestone that afternoon. On arrival we moved into a hotel at the top of the cliff overlooking the Channel. We stayed there until just before I was due to return to school. The next day, Sunday 2nd of September, we had just come out ofchurch as the Air raid alarm went off. Looking up we saw some big planes, coming over from France. Later we learnt it was a passenger plane bringing back holiday makers. Some thought the Germans were launching an attack against us.
A few days later my mother took me to the school train in London to hand me over to the Head Master, Mr Venables. When she did this my mother told me that she was going in a few days to join my Father in India, where he was stationed with his Regiment, and so I would probably not see either of them until after the war and my holidays would be spent with my Grandparents. At this time my school was in Scarborough. In the first war a German U-Boat had shelled it and the Castle.
Having spent the previous Christmas with my Grandparents in London and the "Blitz" having started my Grandparents decided I was safer at school for the holidays of the Spring term. My father had also been to this school as a boy and knew Mr Venables, and the "owner” Mrs Cooper. At this time the Army took a hand in events. They decided to take over the school as a training establishment. The result? I spent the whole of that holiday staying in a boarding house in Scarborough, with the freedom to go wherever I wanted, whilst the Headmaster supervised the clearing out of the school. He too stayed in the same place.
Just before the start of the Summer term the school moved to a village near Boroughbridge into a "Manor House". The Headmaster and I lived in a local pub, whilst the move was taking place. I spent most of my time doing things with people in the village, and going on cycle rides around the area. When the boys returned for the Summer term the numbers had dropped to about 30+.
One evening about midnight two of us spotted a torch apparently sending a morse signal into the sky at the time the air raid alarm had gone off. We took a note of the dots and dashes, and wrote them down. The next morning we told Mr. Venables and someone came to see us. We told him what happened and gave him the details in which he was very interested.
There had been rumours of spies in the area. The father of one of the boys was something to do with such matters. Later we heard that, down a dry "well" in a nearby derelict barn, a wireless, beds etc. had been found.
As this place was surrounded by aerodromes, the Germans attacked them on several occasions when we had to go to the air raid shelter. Most of my holidays from thereon were spent with my Great Uncle and Aunt at Kingsbridge in Devon.
By the end of the Spring term, all the boys except myself had left the school, and it had become bankrupt but I was left on my own to be taught by the head master. There were several reasons why neither my parents or grandparents knew the situation. However, some of the last masters to leave took my Grandparents address and went to see them. One day whilst I was at lessons, there was a commotion at the front door. It was this master, who had returned with written authority to take me to my Grandparents, away from the school. The remaining staff, Mr Venables and members of the "Cooper" family, refused to allow him to do so. The master went to the Police in Boroughbridge. The matron, realising what was happening, started to pack up my clothes and a few oddments. About an hour later, the Police arrived at the front door and argued with the staff. Meanwhile the master had slipped in the back door, found me in the classroom, rushed me out to a taxi, and we went to the Police Station, without any of my clothes etc. When the Police Officers arrived back and heard this, they again went to the school and came back with these items.
The master and I then went by Taxi to York railway station, where we were taken aside by two detectives from York, who had been told by the Headmaster that the master was KIDNAPPING ME. The written authority was sufficient to convince them all was in order.
On our trip down to London the master had an Epileptic fit. I was scared out of my wits. Luckily an army Medic took charge, who was in the cabin with us. The master recovered by the time we reached London, and handed me over to my Grandparents.
I went to a school at Horsham soon afterwards. Here we had to take to the Air Raid shelter quite often, when the German bombers were passing overhead on their way to London.
At the start of the war, my Grandparents had moved out of their house in London, and stored their furniture etc, on moving into a hote1 nearby. Their house was on the edge of a “square”. Across the road on a corner was a house owned by two old ladies. About this time, during an air raid, just as the two old ladies were entering the house, it received a direct hit. My Grandparents house was also destroyed.
SOOT IN BED
One night, when my Grandmother went to pull the cover off my Grandfather's bed, she noticed that the sheets etc were un-tucked on the bed. There had been a bad raid just before that, and explosions nearby to the Hotel. When she pulled the cover off and lifted the sheets up to tuck them in, there was no soot or other matter near the fireplace, which was alongside the bed, but the whole of the sheet area in the bed was full of soot!
Having taken my Common Entrance examination in the Summer term, I went to Eton at the start of Autumn Half (ie Term). We were still required to go to the air raid shelter when the German planes went overhead. We were very restricted as to what we could do, or where we could go. However, as a Scout, many of us volunteered each week to go round all the ”Boys school houses" collecting waste paper, then, taking it to a room, where it was bailed in a machine by hand, before going to the collection centre. Each load taken was anything up to five Tons weight. When one of us had done a certain period on this, we were presented with the Scout's National Service Badge. I did this each week for about three years.
My Cousin was an area organiser for these around Kingsbridge. I often went with her when she was cycling round the farms. I saw their work, talked to them, and heard of all the work they did. (I myself helped on my Aunt's farm during my holidays).
Pre the practice landings before D Day by the U.S. Troops, I went round the area helping in the checking out of the evacuation area from the point of view of the Land Girls, I was also in the area at the actual time of the "invasion". That day we heard of the disaster when the German E Boats intercepted them. We were told to keep our mouths tight shut about the cause, and the event generally (and did).
TROOPS IN WOOD
Just before the D-DAY, an American Regiment was sent into the woods of my Uncles at Kingsbridge. One night the family were awakened by Field Guns being fired, Machine gun fire and mortar fire from their direction. My uncle nearly went out to investigate, but stopped in case the Germans had dropped Paratroops!! The following morning my Uncle went to see the Commanding Officer. On asking the Commanding Officer what had happened, the C.O. replied to the effect: "Oh, it’s nothing”. Some of my lads saw some pheasants and tried to get them for breakfast". When these troops moved out a few days after this, my cousins went round their sight and collected 14 baskets of Horlicks and Chocolate Compo Ration tablets.
With all the tension of this starting, and the stories flying about, we one day knew it had started, as the morning following bombers, fighters, planes towing gliders were passing overhead, and on the ground, we were cheering them on.
At this time the V1 were coming over Windsor area. On one of the race days one of them came directly towards the race course. We waited for it to cut the engine, which it did just short of the course.
Everyone on the course ran for cover including, shall, we say, “Ladies and Gents not necessarily ending In the appropriate toilets”! In other words “Chaos” reigned. Luckily just between the V1 and the race course, there was an old, unused tall laundry chimney. When the V1 was diving towards the course, the wing just tipped the top of the chimney, swinging it round the chimney and exploding on an desolate space alongside the river Thames.
BOMBING OF KINGSBRIDGE
During my Summer Holiday, I was standing at one of the house's large windows after the air raid warning had gone off. Kingsbridge was about a mile down the valley to the East. Suddenly I saw a German Bomber fly over the town and drop its bombs. It was followed almost immediately by a Spitfire, which was shot it down later inland.
Later I learnt that at the time of the bombing, a lady had just entered her house at the bottom of the High Street, running up the hill in the town, when the bombs landed as she was hanging up her coat. All that happened was her back door rattled, and her thumb was dislocated by the blast!
At the same time, further up the hill, in a house, which received a direct hit, a man was blown out of the house onto the top of some chimney pots further up the road. He was not spotted until three days later, when a person walking up the hill, who knew he was missing, looked up and saw him.
In this same raid, my aunt was in the town with a pony and trap when the German plane passed over. The pony was tied up on High Street, and my Aunt was in a shop. The owner of the shop, a rather robust lady, as was my Aunt, suggested that they both got under the counter at the back of the shop. This they did! The front of the shop had a large glass window, with a door to one side, also with glass in the frame. When the bombs exploded, the pony strained on the halter, but did not break away. The blast came in the shop door, went round all the shelves, knocking the tins and bottles off, and left by the door, without breaking a single thing. My Aunt and the owner were hit by one or two items from the she1ves and were shaken but unhurt.
Sometime about this time, when the V2s were being used, I was in London and had a lucky escape. I was travelling in a double decker bus towards Hyde Park, when a V2 landed in a narrow road running parallel to ours. We felt the blast, as the bus wobbled. The window in front of me came in about three inches and then went back into position without any damage.
I was at school. We first heard of it that evening. All the boys (or many of) went up onto the parapet on the roof and started shouting in joy. A crowd gathered on the street below, because they had not heard it. Using a fire escape ladder onto the roof of the next boys-house" I took a bucket of water and threw it over their roof towards the crowd below. It missed them all, but a police constable had come down to find what was causing the noise, and he came round the corner of the house just as I did it. I scampered back to my own house. Then I took another bucket of water down again onto the next door roof, opened the skylight. When the boys were on their way to supper, I threw it down the stair well. It missed the boys and landed full tilt on the head of their matron. I make a quick escape back to my house. About half an hour later all the boys in our "house" were called to the Library Prefects room. Most of the "prefects" were sitting down, hiding behind papers (and obviously having a good laugh). The Captain of the House said; "M’Tutor” (Housemaster) has had a complaint from next door that someone has thrown a bucket of water down their stair well, and it has hit the matron full on the head. I have been instructed to punish that person. Who did it? I owned up.
All the rest of the-boys were sent out (it was obvious some were listening at the door, expecting me to be caned). The prefects had given up pretending to be serious and were quietly laughing. The Captain said: "As I said I must punish you. Will a Half Crown (2/6) fine be agreeable to you, so that I can tell M’Tutor you have been punished? Certainly I said, and paid there and then!
The following morning, boys had to go from "house" to "house" to find one. Many had been thrown over the branches of the trees just outside the main part of the school overlooking the High Street
Contributed originally by Angiemum (BBC WW2 People's War)
Chapter 1 - Evacuation.
My brother and I sat eating our breakfast at the scrubbed pine kitchen table in the back of my father's shop. The radio was on and in hushed silence we heard that Britain was at war with Germany. In seemed very unreal on that sunny September morning in 1939 and as if to heighten the moment, an air raid siren sounded. Donning my gas mask, I walked sedately to the neighbour's Anderson shelter.
I was born in 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash. My parents were from well-to-do families that had lost their riches in the Great Depression. Now my father's fortunes had changed and he bought two furniture shops in the High Street, Ilford. For some time now there had been rumours of war. We had been issued with gas masks at school, the children making fun of the rude noises they made when we breathed out. I watched men parading in the school grounds, and the Black Shirt rallies in the streets. To a skinny hyper-active ten year old it all seemed exciting.
Our nextdoor neighbours had built an Anderson shelter in their back yard that flooded when it rained and now we sat with our feet in water waiting for the All Clear to sound. Mother had already packed a suitcase in case we had to leave in a hurry, her sister having arranged for us to live with a friend of the family in Somerset. Father rang for a taxi to take us to the station and, bundling us into the back seat, gave us each a bacon sandwich to eat on the journey. My brother was crying but I thought it was an adventure. We were going to live deep in the countryside and I imagined a little house like Hansel and Gretel snuggled in a lush green forest.
There were groups of frightened children at Paddington Station, hanging on to their cardboard boxes of gas masks and labelled so that they would not get lost. Mothers and fathers were waving farewell with trepidation. Many of the children had never been away from home and certainly not to the country. They thought milk came out of bottles not from cows' udders. Some of these children stayed with their foster families but many of them were to return to London after a few weeks.
My mother's sister had already gone down to Hatch Beauchamp with her children several weeks before, and was there to meet us at Taunton station. They were staying on a farm but we were to live with an elderly spinster school teacher in the village of Ashill, eight miles from Taunton and twelve miles from Ilminster.
Although from an early age I had become used to moving from place to place, the contrast in lifestyle was to be intense. From a busy city, with trams clanking down the main street and lights blazing through the bedroom windows over the shop, I was to experience total silence and dark lanes. I had attended a Roman Catholic school, went swimming every day in the Olympic swimming pool, explored the city environs with my younger brother and stood in the smoke from the steam engines on the overbridge at the station. I had learned to ride a bike, dive from the top board, done well at sports and art, and gone to church every day. Now nothing would ever be the same again.
We motored through open countryside enclosed with high banked lanes, a far cry from what I had imagined deepest Somerset to be. The upright three storey red brick house looked as if it had been planted in a field of vegetables. It had a large garden with an orchard of damson and apple trees. A straight path, bordered by Sweet Williams, led from the front gate up to the front door. There, a tall austere lady, with her hair tied in a neat bun and wearing a grey flowered frock, greeted us.
The house which was to be our home for the next six months, had a typical Victorian layout. The staircase was immediately opposite the front door, with the drawing room at the left and the kitchen/scullery to the right. The drawing room smelled musty and contained an old out of tune piano, only played for hymns on Sunday, a horsehair stuffed sofa and chairs with antimacassars and hand embroidered cushoions and the nondescript rug on a wood floor. A large aspidistra in a brass pot on a stand stood in front of the heavy lace curtained window, defying any vestige of sunlight to pass. The plastered walls graced pictures depicting departed parents, a boy blowing bubbles and Jesus knocking at a door with a lamp in his hand. We were told this room was only for entertaining visitors.
In contrast, the living room was comfortable with a large polished dining table and Victorian round backed stuffed chairs. An oval rag rug was spread on the flagstone floor in front of a coal range. A huge oil lamp, various lace doilies, china dogs, and vases of dried flowers stood on a big sideboard against the wall. In the corner of the room a beautiful grandfather clock ticked away the hours. A rocking chair was drawn up beside the range where a large black kettle was steaming on the hob. Memories of the comfort and warmth of this room linger with me to this day.
There was no electricity so cooking was done in the range oven or on an oil stove in the scullery. Lighting was with oil lamps and we used candles in the bedrooms. My bedroom was in the attic, furnished with an iron bed with a feather mattress and a cotton counterpane, a wash stand with a large china jug and basin, and a small wardrobe. A chamber pot under the bed and a rag rug strewn over the bare wood floor completed the room. Apart from a large chest of drawers, my mother's bedroom on the landing was identical. Because I wet the bed, my brother was to sleep with her in the double bed.
There was no bathroom and the outside toilet was a wooden shed attached to the house inside which was a bucket covered by a wooden seat. A tray of ashes from the fire was trowelled into the bucket on top of the excrement. When the bucket was full, the contents were tipped over the hedge onto the farm midden ready to be spread on the fields at muck spreading time. On a hook just inside the door was a bunch of torn up newspaper tied with string to be used as toilet paper. The place was cold, dark and dank and a haven for spiders. We waited for as long as we could before going there. My brother preferred to mess his pants rather than do so.
If we wanted a bath, the copper in the scullery was filled with buckets of water from the hand operated puimp outside the back door. The fire was lit underneath it until the water was hot, then allowed to go out. Mother did the family washing, then my brother and I bathed, using rain water from the water butt outside to wash our hair. When we had finished, mother put a zinc bath in font of the coal range, filled in with buckets of dirty water from the copper and had a leeisurely bath all to herself in front of the blazing fire. Afterewards, she dragged the bath to the back door and emptied it outside. I hate to think of the pollution it might have caused to the well water. We did not bathe very often. Hot water was sometimes brought up to my bedroom for washing in the morning, but more often than not I washed in cold water.
It was soon realised that the school teacher was not used to catering for a family and so my mother decided to do the cooking. Large cottage pies, steak and kidney piddings and blackberry and apple pies put weight on us. We had never eaten so well. Vegetables from the garden were soon eaten up, as were the fruits. Breakfast of new laid eggs, clotted cream and h9omemade damson jam on newly baked crusty white bread was a delight. I was sent down a deep muddy lane to the local farm to collect skimmed milk in a billy can and a jug of clotted cream that was always on the table for practically every meal. The cream was used instead of butter.
We were soon enfolded into village life. All the children were expected to help with haymaking and stooking of sheaves of grain. The hay was cut with sickles and pitchforked onto large haywains drawn by cart horses. It was taken away to make into hay ricks. It was hot a prickly work with biting insects that brought us up in hives. Men, moving along the rows in long slow movements, scythed the grain and I was allowed to try my hand at it. Tractors and mechanised farm machinery were looked at with suspicion and regarded as "new fangled". Farmers preferred to use horses and farm labourers. The only concession was a traction engine that threshed the grain and provided straw for the stables and cow sheds.
We also had to collect apples for making cider. It was an almost mystical occasion with the men manning the presses and sampling the casks as they came out of the barn. It was the pinnacle of the harvest.
I loved the secret lanes bordered with tall grasses, stinging nettles and Queen Anne's Lace. Further down the lane from us two old ladies lived. One of the sisters had bright henna hair tied in a bird's nest bun. She was stone deaf and held a hearing trumpet to her ear. Her sister always wrote down what we said to her. They sold new laid eggs, and one day when we went down to buy some, they said they were not able to sell them to us because the Government were going to make them into dried eggs. They were to be rationed.
Since the nearest Roman Catholic church was in
Taunton, Mother decided that we go to the Baptist chapel in the village. Our local butcher offered to take us in his pony and trap. His teenage son drove the horse and I was fascinated by his crisp dark curly hair. We found the Baptist Minister kind and welcoming and the congregation very caring. The butcher had his farm across the fields from us, where he killed his own meat and sold it from the back of his van. This was to end too when meat was rationed. I went to watch a pig being killed one day and saw it rushing around the yard with blood pouring from its neck. My mother was horrified when she found out.
I was also asked to help with milking the cows. I had to hold the cow's tail and pump it up and down otherwise the milk did not flow. It was a long while before I saw the joke. Cows were milked by hand then, and it took a long time in the cold abnd dirty cowsheds to clean and milk the herd. I also learned about foot rot in sheep and watched while their feet were coated in tar and the maggot infested dags were sheared. I peered at the piglets in the sties, visited Ferdinand the bull in his pen, and scratched his forehead. He loved to sniff the flowers I brought him, with an ecstatic look on his face.
The butcher's wife was in charge of the duck and hens and kept a sparkling kitchen, scrubbing the flagstone floors every day. Mother said she worked too hard. She baked an enormous amount of cakes and bread in her Aga oven and was always mixing something in her crockery bowl. Invitations to afternoon tea were a stomach groaning adventure with pies, cakes, scones and the ever present clotted cream and homemade damson jam.
My brother and I went to the local village school where just one remarkable and talented elderly teacher taught children aged between four and twelve in an open classroom. I was the eldest girl and the oldest boy used to have competitions with another boy to see how far and how long they could piss down the white line in the road on the way home. I quickly learned the Somerset vernacular and dialect. I had one language for home and another for school.
It was about two miles down one hill and up another from our house to the village. My mother used to accompany us on a sit up and beg bicycle, and when it rained she held up a large black umbrella whilst cycling along. This plus singing at the top of her voice was the most embarrassing thing she could ever have done. I wanted to hide. At school I was put in charge of teaching the little ones reading, writing and alphabet. Each morning the whole school faced the blackboard and called out simple word spellings in parrot fashion. I learned far more than I had ever done at my other schools. Fractions and decimals were explained thoroughly, and I was given freedom to write about anything I wanted to. All the girls learned sewing, knitting and spinning, while the boys learned to weave, make models and create a topographical map of the village from clay.
I often finished my work well before the others, so I was sent outside to feed the chickens with dandelion leaves, take caterpillars off the cabbages and put them in jars so we could watch them turn into chrysalis, and prepare the soil ready for planting seeds. I learned how to read the clouds and the leaves to predict the weather, and designed a weather chart for each day. We were told how to tell the difference between birdes, and rabbits and hares, and shown the secrets of herbs and tell when it was time to harvest the wheat. We learned about shapes of trees and habitats of flora and fauna. The teaching was imaginative and rich and it served me for the rest of my life.
As soon as an aircraft was heard, all the children rushed to the windows of the classroom. We soon could tell the difference between types of aircraft by the sound but as yet there were no enemy planes. There was only one other evacuee at the school and she and I used to make up things about where we had lived and what we could do. There was a French Jewish boy who was being repatriated who did not want to go home, and two Quaker girls who wore long pigtails down their backs and funny flat hats. They did not mix with the other children.
The village shop was over by the butcher's farm and I used to be sent to pick up groceries and coat-tail packets of rasberry drops. It was customary to pick blackberries on the way and one day I lost the change from the envelope I was carrying. Mother had a violent temper and was none too pleased. However, although I looked I never found the money and mother thought perhaps someone picking mushrooms must have got lucky.
Towards the end of November and the beginning of December, the village was busy preparing for Christmas. The puddings had been stirred by us all in the big crockery mixing bowl, the almonds shelled and chopped, the muscatels seeded, suet chopped and breadcrumbs grated. The final addition of barley wine meant we could all sample some and scrape around the bowl. The pudding basins were plunged into the copper and boiled for hours and then placed on the shelves in the scullery larder. The Christmas cake had been made and baked slowly in the oil stove. Apples were cored and sliced and strung on strings in front of the coal range to dry. Plums were dried and eggs pickled for winter. Jam and pickles had been made earlier and the jars sat neatly on the larder shelves. The whole place smelled of wood smoke, clotted cream, spices and baking.
We were all invited to the Hatch Beauchamp Christmas school concert and one of the older boys led the community singing of "We'll Hang Out the Washing on the Zeigfreid Line" and "Run Rabbit Run" amid loud applause. There was a nativity play and then the Mummers came in from the back of the hall with the dragon, the doctor and Saint George. The uproar and laughter they created was wondrous and when the doctor pulled a string of sausages out of the unfortunate dragon's stomach, the house was brought down. The dragon was healed and promisede not to terrorise the people any more and Saint George passed around a hat for coins. Afterwards we went to another farm for an enormous supper.
I was asked to write a nativity play for school to be acted in front of our teacher. I had a doll for baby Jesus that was brouight down from Heaven by an angel. The farm children with their knowledge of birth and death must have thought it very strange. Previously we had made large envelopes decorated with pictures from last year's Christmas cards and cut up white paper for snow. I had no idea what they were for, but on the last day of school we were given them filled with all kinds of items that the teacher had saved from Cornflakes and soap packets throughout the year. We each had something, including samples of chocolate and sweets. I had a lace making wheel, a French knitting spool and a painting set. I still have the lace making wheel.
I do not remember a lot about Christmas Day but on Boxing Day we visited a farm near Sedgemoor. The robust sons came in from shooting rabbits and pheasants amid lots of excitement from the guests. There were a lot of people there and we played all kinds of party games before sitting down to a great feast. We viewed the hounds in the kennels and watched the horsemen in their red coats getting ready to hunt the fox. Some of the hound puppies were not yet weaned and they smelled of that special smell of sweet dog's milk and hay that only puppies have.
After Christmas it snowed with drifts up to the top of the hedges. Sheep were lost and cows stood on the barns with icicles hanging from their noses. Each morning when I woke there were fernlike fronds of ice on the windows and I had to break the ice on my water jug to wash myself. I suffered terribly from chilblains that burst and mother wrapped them up in bandages soaked in castor oil. The snow lasted for weeks and soon it was spring again
with primroses and pussy willow catkins in the hedgerows. There was no sign of war starting, let alone ending. The French appeared to be holding their own and the British were supporting them as best they could. Father had sold the shops and was enlisted to work in Hawkers aircraft factory in Kingston-on-Thames. He had found a rented house near Worcester Park, Surrey, and wanted us to come home. Mother's sister was already back in New Malden nearby and so we said farewell to all our friends and never saw them again. I often wonder what happened to the children at the village school and the teenage farm boys.
Chapter 2 - Air raids
The Head Teacher in my new small private school called us all into the assembly room. We sang "For Those in Peril on the Sea" and she told us how British troops were being evacuated from Dunkirk. Small private vessels were being sent out to rescue them because the larger ships could not cope with the numbers. It was one of those defeats that Britain makes into heroic victories. Our school motto "Ad Astra" had been taken from the Royal Air Force motto, and we were to wear our school uniform with pride, always reaching for the skies. We were given "girl power" with examples of female heroes and role models. Women could do anything and were now the backbone of the nation because our men were fighting in the war.
We were now living in the ugliest house I had ever seen in a speculative building estate. In the plot next to ours there was a huge electricity pylon that crackled when it rained and mother utilised the ground beneath it to grow vegetables and soft fruit. The windows had been prepared with gummed tape against bomb blasts and blackout curtains put up. Barage balloons like tethered Dumbos drifted in the sky and reinforced brick bomb shelters were being offered to be put in the lee of the house walls. My father decided we could shelter in the downstairs toilet or in the cupboard under the stairs.
We had watched the Battle of Britain from our back garden, marvelling at the spectacle of vapour trails winding in and out and the occasional aircraft spiralling to the ground. Without any warning at all, there was a sudden explosion that shook the house. My father was upstairs getting ready to go to work and he was so frightened that he fell down the stairs in his hurry to get to the shelter of the toilet. We crammed into the toilet, taking turns to sit on the seat until the All Clear sounded. The thunderous noise had come from an anti-aircraft gun that went up and down the railway close by.
Very soon the air raids began in earnest. At school our lessons were often interrupted and we took shelter in the basement of the large Edwardian house, singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" as we marched down the steps. My father worked at the factory on a night shift and came home totally exhausted, his clothes covered in oil and his shoes encrusted with iron filings. Eventually the factory was bombed and he took a coach to Slough where he stayed during the week.
Bombing became a way of life. It was mostly at night, and people went about their business as usual during the day. After a raid it was peculiar to see houses with half their contents lurching crazily into the road, the front walls stripped away, leaving toilet and baths precariously hanging on by their copper pipes. Shrapnel littered the roads, and rained down on roofs during the raids. Only the wardens were allowed out during a raid. My brother and I used to go out and collect shrapnel in the mornings, and sometimes hoped to see bits of people in the wreckage. We never did. I cannot remember ever being frightened, and my father said that if our number was on it then so be it. We became philosophical and people, places and things became valueless.
Deep underground shelters were built near the recreation ground, and we took eiderdowns and blankets with us to sleep in the bunks. The smell was foetid from bad breath, cigarettes, and body odour. My mother disinfected our place with Lysol to get rid of the smell. We were told to keep very close to the elm trees on our way to the shelters in case we were strafed by a German fighter. One of the shelters took a direct hit and my mother decided she would rather die in bed.
On the way back from the shops one day my brother and I heard a plane diving, and as we ran to shelter underneath the railway bridge we heard the bullets hitting the road. Sometimes a German plane was shot down and we would look for pieces of the wreckage. Once a German pilot baled out and was hanging on top of the gasometer amid lots of excitement by the Home Guard. I learned to speak German in case I met a pilot trying to escape. German planes had a very distinct sound to their engines and I could easily distinguish between our planes and theirs.
Food and clothing were very strictly rationed and we got used to wearing hand-me-downs. Mother used to make us clothes from old garments, pulling back old woollen jumpers and making new ones. If our shoes wore out, my father patched them with a cardboard mixture. I used to go up to Worcester Park to the Community restaurant run by the Womens Volunteer Service. They served Spam, corned beef stew, or toad in the hole with processed peas and potatoes. For desert we had suet pudding and watered down custard.
Mother eked out the two ounces of butter a week with margarine and milk, and made jam from marrows from her garden. We picked blackcurrants from the gardens of bombed out houses, and collected rose hips and ornamental apples to make juice. Sweets were rationed, so we ate flavoured gelatine from jelly packets.
One night there was the most incredible raid and the house rocked all over the place as if an earthquake had hit us. My brother and I had taken shelter in the iron Morrison shelter that we had in the back room. The shaking was so intense by bombs dropping fairly close by and the anti-aircraft gun thundering on the railway line, that when we finally emerged we were covered in flakes of rust from the shelter.
The bombing was spectacular and we went upstairs to get a better view and were astonished to see the most remarkable fireworks display we had ever seen. The sky was a dazzling orange from incendiary bombs, search lights, tracer bullets and aircraft plunging in flames. It seemed to go on all night. London was being mercilessly attacked. My father went up to London to help and to rescue my grandmother. She came to live with us until she found somewhere else to live.
The French doors in the back room were regularly hiked off their hinges and dropped intact onto the lawn. Apart from this, we never suffered any damage, nor knew anyone who died in the war. However, a land mine landed in the oak tree at the bottom of the garden and we were evacuated safely out of the way until it had been made safe. A reinforced brick shelter was put in our garden and mother, my brother and I squashed in there like sardines during the worst raids. Perhaps the only time I really felt scared was listening to the bombs whistling as they fell, wondering if they were going to fall on us. We began to live on adrenalin.
Our head teacher thought it would be a good idea if we wrote to some girls in another school in Lake Forest, Illinois. I chose a girl whose mother was on the campaigning committee for Adlai Stevenson and who knew the Kennedy's very well. I still write to her at Christmas. America was not yet in the war but was providing Lease/Lend. My penfriend sent us parcels of tinned food, and material to make clothes. I also wrote to a boy in New Jersey who eventually joined the Navy Seals and went to Guatemala, but who I never heard from again.
Around about this time there was a threat of invasion, and mother had packed a suitcase ready for us to be sent to Canada. My father asked his brother who lived in Edmonton if we could stay with him until the war was over. We were about to embark the following day when we heard that the ship that had sailed before ours had been torpedoed and hundreds of children drowned. Our sailing was cancelled. Incredibly my mother became pregnant because, she said she could not imagine life without children.
Mother was often in a hysterical state of collapse during the last stages of her pregnancy and I was expected, as the eldest to be responsible for her and my brother while father was away. My sister was born in April 1941 in the middle of an air raid. My brother and I stayed with a neighbour while mother was in the nursing home and I slept with the teenage daughter. I had never had to dress my own hair, so it was a shock having to weave my plaits and tie my school tie.
One of my friends at school became fascinated by a Dutch merchant seaman who was convalescing in a home at the end of the school avenue. We waited outside the home until Cornelius came out to talk to us. He had been torpedoed in the North Sea and rescued by a British tanker. There were also Polish pilots staying there who had been shot down in the Channel and rescued. He gave me some stamps with Hitler and Mussolini on them. I threw them away.
My father hardly came home now, and finally he left having fallen in love with a woman in the factory. My sister was about six months old and mother put her in my bedroom for me to look after. The bombing was not so intense now but another type of bomb was to threaten us. Mother could not afford my fees any more and wanted me to stay at home to look after the baby and the house while she went to work. At school the head teacher offered a compromise. In lieu of fees I would become a student teacher at the school and she would make sure that I continued with my studies. I had already passed School Certificate and taken Royal College of Art exams. I was Head Girl and captain of the netball and hockey teams. Apparently I had a lot of potential but no one ever told me what in. In fact I felt very inadequate at school, always terrified of getting things wrong, and because I was in a class with girls much older than myself, I was socially inept.
Suddenly the flying bombs started with a vengeance. 8000 rockets were launched in the space of a few months. These bombs were terrifying since no one knew when the engine would cut out. Often they would start up again and take off just when they were about to land and explode. My cousin came home once covered in mud when she had dived into a ditch to avoid a flying bomb that had flown under the railway bridge and taken off again.
My school was evacuated to the country and although the head teacher suggested I went with them, mother would not hear of it. I left school just before my fourteenth birthday.
American troops were now stationed in Bushy Park near Hampton Court. As well as the Tommy Handley Show, we could now listen to the American Forces Network and the Glen Miller Band. Bob Hope came to entertain the troops and Charlie Macarthy was popular on the radio. I fantasised about all things American and quick-stepped around the room doing the housework to String of Pearls. An American soldier came to visit a girl staying with one of my couusins and I tried to make every opportunity to visit. However, I was so overawed by him that I could not utter a word without being terribly embarrassed. He gave me chewing gum and a magasine with Sad Sack in it.
We watched with amazement to see wave upon wave of flying fortress bombers blackening the sky over our house, and just as amazed when, still in formation, they came back with large gaps where the planes had been shot down. Once I watched a crippled plane limping home and I prayed for it to land safely. My brother and I often played by the Hogsmill Stream down the road from our home, and one day I heard an incredible rumbling sound coming from the Kingston Bypass. Investigating, I was startled to see line after line of tanks squeaking down the road for miles. The noise went on all day and all night for days, and the main road through New Malden was nose to tail with troop carriers and trucks. We waved to the soldiers as they went by. They were getting ready to invade France.
We learned about the war from newspapers and the radio. One of my uncles who worked for the Evening Standard became a War Correspondent with the American Forces. He told us about the fiasco at Arnhem and how many of the soldiers were crushed when the gliders landed and the jeeps fell out. Suddenly, from all the months of frighteningly exciting activity and noise, everything went quiet and I began to understand what it must have been like for men who had been in the front line to be sent home.
A German Prisoner of War camp was built at the corner where an old farmhouse had been. The men helped to rebuild houses that had been bombed and clear the land. Prefabricated dwellings were built opposite the camp for homeless, and eventually after the war some ugly Council flats were built over the campsite. The elms died from Dutch elm disease. Many of the German soldiers did not want to return to Germany. There was nothing to go back to.
By the time I was fifteen I was working in the City of London. The war was still continuing with news of the fall of Germany and of the death of Adolph Hitler. Eventually I worked at British American Tobacco Company in Millbank and I and my boyfriend watched the wonderful victory celebrations from the top floor of the building. For us the war was over and all the promise and expectations of reconstruction and peace began.
My mother continued to work and retired and died in New Zealand. She never married again. My father died alone in a bed sitting room in Worcester Park shortly after war ended and my brother joined the Air Force and immigrated to South Africa where he died in 1988. My sister married, went to New Zealand and had two daughters. I married, went to New Zealand, had two sons and a daughter and eight grand children. I divorced and came back to Dorset in 1995.
How the war shaped our lives I do not know, but what I do know is that we are the survivors.
Contributed originally by Sgt Len Scott RAPC (BBC WW2 People's War)
September 5, 1944 was the ninth anniversary of our total commitment - the day when Minna, this Danish girl whom I had met in a Dolomite mountain-refuge, had agreed to abandon her country and live with me. Now I had to end my letter of love with: 'After nearly two years my interesting job has finally and irrevocably dried up. For the first time in my Army career I am "awaiting a posting". It is rather exciting, in a way, when you don't know for whom you will be working the week after next! I expect the long arm of the Pay Corps will reach out and grab me at last.'
Brigadier Rabino, Banking and Currency Adviser, Algiers, to whom I had been confidential clerk, had been recalled to England - with Paris his eventual destination. As pre-war boss of the Westminster Bank's HQ in that city, he was invaluable. He was frank with me. He would have liked to keep me with him and was endeavouring to get me transferred to the Royal Army Service Corps but I knew, and I think he knew, that this was a lost cause.
Meanwhile Radio London had announced that the 'flying bomb era' had ended. I was sceptical and awaited more reliable news from Minna. A return to normality? But the gulf between our experiences seemed to widen month by month. Some of the more thoughtful among us in Algeria had suggested, half-seriously, half-jokingly, that demobilised soldiers would need rehabilitation courses to fit them for 'normality'. I felt I would be content with Minna for my guide, introducing me to the fact that there were beds, that beds had sheets and that tea need not be drunk from a tin mug.
On 17 September I arrived at No. 2 Command Pay Office, Maison Carrée - I was under Pay Corps control for the first time in nearly two years. The given wisdom among we soldiers was that all whose surnames fell within A to K would be sent to Greece, while the L to Zs would go to Italy. In Greece, we heard, our Pay Corps mates were wedged between two rival gangs of 'patriotic' thugs who were trying to kill each other in the name of liberation. Nothing changes: Byron had the same problem.
I shared a dirty room with another sergeant, locating and destroying four fleas on my palliasse. But, as I told Minna, there are always compensations. My grubby room commanded a splendid view of the sea in all its moods. My only duties were routine - guards and the like. This was an unhappy place for the 'permanent' staff. One Warrant Officer was well-hated. As he came out of the Mess one evening, standing outlined against the light a bullet smacked into the woodwork beside his head. Searches. All rifles withdrawn and examined. All bullets counted. No culprit discovered. No-one 'knew anything'.
Radio London's 'end of the flying-bomb era' story was a lie. In late September South East England experienced a series of mysterious explosions which caused heavy casualties. The official explanation was that the flying-bombs had caused damage to gas-mains. Not until November did the Government admit that the Germans had perfected a new and deadly weapon - a rocket-propelled missile travelling at incredible speed. These landed without warning like lightning from a cloudless sky. No defence possible. They were named the V-2s. Attempts were made to destroy the sites from which they were launched but most of the Allied air forces were concentrating on the destruction of the still powerful German Army and its communications.
Later` it was calculated that at least six fell each day and the casualties were reaching many thousands. We in Africa were kept misinformed. We were told that the advancing Allies had already demolished many of the launching-sites. Minna permitted herself no mention of this new peril. The word 'V-2' did not appear in her correspondence until mid- 1945.
My last letter from Africa (24 September) told Minna that Major Gosling had promised to ring her on his return to England with my Brigadier and concluded: 'Darling, the news has been so good lately...' I posted this just before climbing into a lorry with all my impedimenta. I knew where I was going. This sergeant within the L-Z group was bound for Italy.
We assembled, dockside, by the Ville d'Alger...an old friend last seen in Oxford Street - in the Academy Cinema where Jean Gabin, surrounded by police, kills himself because the ship is bearing away his lady-love. That was Pepi le Moko that was! Today she was bearing me away to Italy. I shall never forget sailing within what seemed an arm's length of the rocky Isle of Capri. Then the view of Vesuvius and the Naples bay familiar from a million postcards.
Naples dockyard had been bombed and the buildings were hollow shells. We, the Pay Corps draft, formed up on the quay and waited. It was raining. No-one dared to say 'See Naples and die.' After a couple of hours we climbed into truck and roared volcano-wards noting that many streets were placarded 'Off Limits - danger of typhus.'
'Yes. I am on the right continent at last!' I wrote from a transit camp in what would have been the shadow of Vesuvius had the sun shone. 'After an incredibly calm passage I arrived at an Italian port (which must be nameless) and was whisked away to this camp some miles out of the city I must not mention. The camp is situated in a low-lying vineyard area and after heavy rain is a sticky morass. I spent the night under canvas and discomfort; my bed Mother Earth, her chilly embrace discouraged by my ground-sheet. The rain continued all night and I awoke to find my tent (which I share with what seems like a football team) a little island surrounded by overflowing drainage trenches. The morning was fine and I was one of the lucky ones granted a day pass to the port of arrival.'
My interest in Naples was minimal. I wanted Pompeii, but it was 'off limits'. There had been looting by the Yanks. Doubtless Yanks wishing to go to Pompeii were refused because of looting by the Limeys.
Central Naples seemed undamaged - wide streets and a number of pompous palaces. One of these, about the size of Buckingham Palace, had been commandeered for the use of British 'other ranks'. From the lofty vestibule a wide staircase ascended into infinity. It was of marble and army boots clattered up and down, raising echoes in the painted ceilings where nymphs and satyrs disported in 'all-but' situations. There were lounges, bars dispensing tea and sticky cakes - also a luxurious bath-house, worthy of ancient Rome. Here I showered gratefully, removing the last traces of Africa.
To explore a foreign city without a map or guidebook is tantalising. Add to this an overnight inter-continental transition and I spent the day in a daze. I climbed to am old fortress which stood on a hill. There I enjoyed the famous view - the terrace, the town, the bay and the volcano. Descending I threaded a maze of narrow streets where washing hung on lines extended from house to house and where dark-eyed children with classic features eyed me and begged for cigarettes and chewing-gum. There were queer little old shops crammed with curios.
My feet were aching and I thought it time to return to camp. I went to the palace and enquired about a lift to the Transit Camp . Which one, I was asked? There were three. I was clueless. I consulted the Military Police but they considered all soldiers as potential deserters or idiots. I was in the second category and agreed with them. The likely road out of town was suggested and I began walking, thumbing for lifts and being doused as they ignored me. The road ran between ruined buildings and gloomy lanes, some with the typhus sign. There is something sinister about a strange city at night - the Chirico touch.
Five hours later I stumbled into camp, my soaked battle-dress clinging to me like a lover, my boots squelching, the rain outdoing all previous malignity. Ten minutes later my pass would have expired and I would have been on a 'fizzer' (conduct prejudicial to military discipline). While locating my tent I fell thigh-deep into one of the overflowing drainage trenches. That despised tent seemed a snug little home of rest as I dived into its unlit interior, stripped naked and towelled down. I awoke to a bright morning - fighting fit and very hungry.
Contributed originally by cornwallcsv (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the People’s War by Lynn Hughes on behalf of John Freeborn, the author and has been added to the site with his/her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
My first memory of the war was being fitted for a gas mask; I must have still been at school for that is where we went to be fitted. They smelt horrible and made a rude noise when you breathed out, like a whoopee cushion. Gas masks were issued prior to actual war being declared, which must have been a terrible worry for the adults fearing a repeat of the 1914/1918 war.
The following year on 8th September 1939 Neville Chamberlain the Prime Minister declared war on Germany. I had left school and was back in London living with my grandparents at 1 Hyde Park Street, Paddington, where my Grandfather had got me a job as assistant porter, he being the head porter. We lived in the basement flat, I remember his words as we listened to Neville Chamberlain on the wireless, “Well John will not be involved, it will be over before he is old enough”. As a 14 year old having only just left school it was impossible to grasp the significance of it, you have to remember that at that time there was no TV or portable radio’s the only visual news at the cinema, and no children’s Saturday morning shows. But the Air Raid siren that screamed out only moments after his speech certainly brought home the reality of it.
So started the wartime phase of my life. Grandfather had decided we should use the wine cellar in the middle of the basement as our air raid shelter as it had a strong vaulted roof. Looking back I certainly thought that it was strong enough, but would anybody have found us under all the rubble had the building been bombed? We did not have any food or water down there to survive.
Living in the centre of London alongside Hyde Park you quickly learnt the realities of wartime Brition. School children were evacuated out of London and the open area’s of the park rapidly filled up with anti aircraft guns (200 ringed London) and barrage balloon’s. Some areas were criss crossed with dug art air raid shelters, those in the area behind speaker’s corner are I believe still there just as they were sealed up with concrete slabs after the war. The first ones had just been trenches with wooden sides topped with wooden planks and earth. As the war dragged on they were rebuilt in concrete. Other areas by the Knightsbridge barracks became large deep quarries where soil had been dug up to fill sandbags. These quarries were filled after the war with bomb rubble and are now football pitches.
Later in the war as the Americans came any small space left in the park became a base Ball pitch, and the London Taxi drivers made hay as they took Americans on trips round London. The Taxis then had drop down hoods over the back seats that were put down to give a good view.
As a teenager in London that had not known anything different, you took all changes in your stride. While you went to dance lesson’s Ballroom dancing in those day’s in my case near where I worked in Acton, you cursed the people laying all over the underground station platforms as you came home, they were sheltering from the bombs. I had joined the ARP Air raid precautions as a messenger, so even the buildings destroyed became norm, just part of the statistics at our ARP post. We had a room in the basement of a house near our church in Hyde Park Crescent as our post. To while away the time between raids we had a half size billiard table. It was here that I met my first girl friend Olive, a little older than me she was a warden. Gran was very kind and invited her home for tea and made quite a fuss of her, we did the usual things in those days, went to the pictures and dancing. Olive joined the WRAF (Womans Royal Air Force) and left before I joined the Navy. I did see her on a couple of leaves, and met up by accident after the war when I found her working in the Sketchly Dry Cleaning shop in Connaught Street not far form Hyde Park St. She had married a Scotsman, they visited us once when we lived in Ewell.
My stepsisters Iris Hennickie used to travel from Kenton some evenings to join me in dancing lessons, we went to a dance club in the Edgware Road. Looking back I shudder to think where it was we went, it was a bit sleazy, the sort of place that I now know you go to pick up a prostitute, but we had no trouble and they did teach you to dance. By this time I was apprenticed as a printer to a firm in Acton, travelling to work by bus every day you noticed all the different coloured buses from other cities that were taking the place of the traditional red London bus as they were destroyed in the blitz. So many were lost that it is surprising it did not appear with the aircraft losses, i.e. 6 aircraft and 2 buses were lost in last nights raids.
In our area there had not been a lot of bomb damage. It could have been the fact that the Anti Aircraft guns in Hyde Park kept them away from us we did have lots of incendiary bombs on the roof, in the morning you found them burnt out on the roof luckily they did not burn through the Tarmac to the rafters. The house on the other corner Albion Street was not so lucky and did catch fire and we could only watch helplessly from the street all night seeing the fire moving closer to us all the time. The fire engines were all rushing past on the way to the fires in dockland, that being the night of the fire blitz on the docks. The fire was put out just in time to save us but not that house. Going to the Discovery next day I cursed all the fire hoses over the pavement that you had to lift you cycle over. That house was pulled down and the basement flooded to make an emergency water tank. We did have was obviously a small bomb hit our marble front door steps, all the windows were blown out and the heavy oak front door to pieces. I did manage to save enough of the wood to make a Tea Trolley for my Auntie Winnie Winifred Levy. I managed to leave bits of the shrapnel in the wood as a reminder of what it was. Unfortunately this was disposed of after her death because her children did not know of its origin. I got into a bit of trouble about this, as I was seen taking the photograph and reported as a spy, luckily Granddad being an ex policeman was able to it out.
Besides being in the ARP I was still in the Sea Scouts on the “Discovery” moored by Waterloo Bridge. There we senior scouts also performed Mine watching duties against the latest threat of 2200lb parachute mines being dropped into the Thames to drift on the tide to cripple the shipping in the docks. We older Scouts Rover Scouts also helped the Fire Brigade with its floating pumps, they had made emergency fire floats, putting trailer pumps into empty Thames dumb barges to help them fight the warehouse fires from the river side. These barges were often on our moorings alongside the “Discovery”.
We senior scouts were also undertaking Navel training on the Discovery, meant to give us a flying start in the Navy as CW candidates for entry as midshipman. The engine of the “Discovery” had been taken out as scrap to help the war effort. This had been a very large triple expansion steam engine. The space left by the removal of the engine and its boiler was converted to sleeping accommodation for us as trainees. Proper naval routine was followed, with us doing drills on the flat roof of Temple underground station across the embankment from the Discovery. Many did achieve entry as CW candidates I unfortunately did not; my schooling was not up to grade. I did achieve entry into the navy, which was difficult at that time, the main entry being into the army. Unfortunately I lost contact with all my chums then and I do not know if any survived the war. I did become a deep-sea Scout; we wore our scouts badge on a wrist strap and hoped that we would perhaps meet up with other scouts at sea. After the war I did try to trace my old friends through the troop records, but City of London Sea scouts had been disbanded and all records lost.
15th July 1943 I volunteered for the Royal Navy as a visual signalman, at Willesden recruiting centre. 6th September 1943 I received my travel warrant to Skegness to join HMS King Arthur. Which turned out to be Butlins Holiday camp, where we were kited out with uniform and had a full medical overhaul and inoculations followed by basic drill. Followed most importantly by me, a psychology test to try and fit round pegs into round holes. That’s where my poor schooling mainly spelling failed my wish to be a visual signalman. In their wisdom the navy choose my destiny, to be a wireman the navy’s name for a basic electrician. I was whisked off to HMS Shrapnel at Letchworth a RN unit in a factory that produced the gear that we would have to maintain on board ship and into civy billets in Hitching. It was there that we learnt our trade and found out we would be join Landing Craft. Passing out with good grades they were right I would make a good electrician. I was then posted to HMS Quebec, for a moment I thought whoopee, I was off to Canada only to be brought down to earth Scottish earth. It was another naval base camp on the shores of Loch near Inveraray.
This was where we were introduced to our landing craft. I would point out here that the Navy has a peculiar method of moving you around, together with your kitbag, hammock and tool chest, and a lot of gear. Wherever you were drafted you first took a train back to your home barracks in my case Devonport spent one night there and then back on the train to your next ship or base. From there I was drafted to HMS Mylodon in Lowestoft with the obligatory visit to Devonport. I saw a lot of England from those trains. All combined operation bases i.e. landing craft had names of prehistoric animals. HMS Mylodon was in a disused silk works on the river Waveney. By the way The Mylodon was a Great Tree Eating Sloth. Here I found that my skills were judged to best suit joining the base staff, were landing craft were repaired and maintained, in my case LCT’s and Assault craft.
It was here at Mylodon that I met Grace, girlfriend 2. A Wren Writer, who worked for the Master at Arms. We were together in that camp right up to when we were demobbed. The rest is as they say history, Grace has always said that she should not have gone out with somebody also on the base staff, it stopped her meeting other boys, and she would certainly have got many others, she was such a looker. In Lowestoft we started having Potato and Gravy pies probably the forerunner of the instant food shops like McDonalds. At this time I advanced to Leading Wireman. It was now the run up time to the Dday landings, this combined with the geographical position of Lowestoft Mylodon was in the forefront of perations. I was pleased that having gone through the London blitz I was playing evens a small part in the final stage of the war. Although my part was fairly modest it was a good feeling. VE Day celebrations came and went in Lowestoft and our duties changed to decommissioning the landing craft along the banks of the river. Following VJ Day with everyone being demobbed, Mylodon by then had become a demobb centre I drew the short straw and had to stay and decommission the base.
Finally I was demobbed on 12th July 1946 3 years in the Navy almost to the day. It was then back to civy street to complete my apprenticeship as a printer, and hopefully to find somewhere to live in the ruins of London.
If the young think that they have it hard now, they should have had a go back then.
Contributed originally by actiondesksheffield (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk — Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Jean Simpson, and has been added to the site with the author’s permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
In the early summer of 1944, I was one of some ten A.T.S. girls working in the War Office and living in a War Department requisitioned house in Belgravia, London S.W.1. Small by London standards, but it was a delightful house and we were well pleased with what were luxurious quarters and the prestigious address.
We had an aristocratic neighbour, the young Marquis of Tavistock, recently discharged from the army on medical grounds, and living next door with his wife, toddler son and baby (he later inherited the title and eventually became famous as the Duke of Bedford, who reorganised Woburn Abbey into becoming a going concern after years of neglect).
The tremendous news of the D-day invasion had just broken with great rejoicing, although with little or no media coverage, we didn’t at that time, realise the horrific cost.
We did not know that the Civil Defence forces were standing by for an expected alert; the backlash from Hitler. It came on the night of June the 13th. Going to bed as usual, we were awakened by sirens. A strange whistling noise sounded across the sky, then deadly silence, followed by a deafening shattering explosion. The ‘all clear’ sounded quite soon afterwards, and we went back to our beds. This nightmare scenario went on all night. In the morning, we went to work, exhausted: there was a rumour of ‘pilotless’ planes. In those days, we hadn’t been conditioned by science fiction and it was unbelievably fantastic and terrifying.
On June the 16th, it was announced that Hitler had launched his vengeance weapon, the V1 (flying bomb), soon to be known as the Doodlebug. We had to learn to live with this fearsome situation. We knew that when the motor cut out, the explosion would come a heart stopping ten seconds later.
Every night we came downstairs in our tin hats and blue and white striped issue pyjama (we called them ‘Bovril’ pyjamas) after the shipwrecked pyjama clad man in the Bovril advertisement.
Sometimes, to relieve the tension, we played games. A favourite one was moving a glass around the letters of the alphabet to tell the future. We optimistically assumed that we would have one (a future, that is). Our concern was, would we get married, and to whom?
During this terrifying period, many thousands of innocent people were killed, homes were destroyed and buildings laid to waste.
The aim was to cause maximum devastation amongst the civilian population. Expectant mothers, children, the old and the sick were evacuated. Our neighbours, for the sake of the children, departed to the country. Those who lived in what were considered to be safe areas, were asked to offer hospitality breaks to beleaguered A.T.S. girls. I had a blissfully peaceful weekend at an ancient Vicarage in Baldock, Hertfordshire.
In London, the robotic attacks went on most of the summer until the R.A.F. was able to deflect them, by radar, to less harmful destinations.
On September the 8th, Hitler unleashed an even more terrible weapon of destruction, the V2. Unlike the V1, this could be targeted at a specific destination. Every night, the platforms of Underground stations became dormitories for weary Londoners seeking sanctuary. These scenes were dramatically captured by Henry Moor in some of his drawings.
We started to take our mattresses down to the little hall. As every old soldier knows, mattresses then were in three parts known as ‘biscuits’. We eventually became fed up of this nightly chore and fatalistically, returned to our beds.
The allied advance after D-day was not as rapid as hoped, there was a fierce German attack in the Ardennes, then came the heroic but tragic attempt to seize the Rhine Bridge at Arnhem. However, the V2s stopped when the allies captured Holland and Belgium, and the Nazis lost their launching sites.
At last, the tide was turning. In May 1945, surrender was accepted at Lunenburg Hath and the war was over. Thankfully and joyously, for one day, a public holiday was declared. Two of us volunteered to be on duty that day and whilst walking across London to our office, we were courteously approached by two American soldiers. They wondered if we would allow them to take a picture, as a record of this memorable day. We were immensely flattered. We never saw them again but we were surprised and pleased to receive copies of the snaps. The accompanying picture shows one of our friends holding a copy of the American force’s newspaper.
Victory, after six horrific years of slaughter, devastation and suffering, was briefly summed up in two words: “GERMANY QUITS”.
Contributed originally by Civic Centre, Bedford (BBC WW2 People's War)
Douglas Bader flew with two artificial legs, but I think I was the only servicewoman driver with one leg.
I joined the WAAF in 1942 and trained in Blackpool, my test being taken in a three ton lorry on a Saturday afternoon in August. After that experience I was based at Moon's Garage, Horseferry Road, London, where I worked as a driver.
On 24th February 1944 I was returning from the Queen's Ice Rink, Bayswater, on foot (Gloucester Street) when there was an air raid near Victoria Station. An enemy plane was caught in the search lights and jettisoned its bomb load. These blew up across the street, and I was hit by part of a bomb and lost my left leg. There was no pain - I can remember people asking me the phone number of my next of kin which I gave them. I did not lose consciousness. I nearly died, loss of blood, etc. I was taken to Westminster Hospital where I remained for four weeks. When I arrived I said that I had never had so many men around me at that time of night. After a while I was allowed to sit out on the first floor balcony. Then one day I received a letter addressed to "The lady in the green dressing gown on the first floor balcony". He said he was a civil servant and had noticed me, and would like to meet me. He said that the next day as he passed by he would raise his hat so I would know who he was. You can imagine that the nurses found this very amusing and looked out for the man lifting his hat from behind the curtains. We did meet but that was the end of the story.
After leaving hospital I went home to my parents at Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire. I went to Roehampton Limb Fitting Centre in south west London as an outpatient. It was several months before my artificial leg was ready for me. Then I had to relearn to cycle, ride a horse, drive, dance, swim, sail and canoe. Later I did rock climbing and abseiling. My parents were wonderful and encouraged me in my recovery, and never tried to stop me trying to do things.
When I was fit for service the WAAF offered me an office job, but I wanted to drive again. They took some convincing, but I was reinstated as a driver after I passed a further test. I drove VIPs all over England until the end of the war.