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War Time Memories

WARTIME MEMORIESNow to our presentation, which was originally suggested by our Vice Chairman, Janet Wallington. I’d like to begin by reading a poem by Carl Sandberg suggested by one of our key contributors, John Pimlott. GrassPile the bodies high at Austerlitz and WaterlooShovel them under and let me work –I am the grass; I cover all.And pile them high at GettysburgAnd pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.Shovel them under and let me work.Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:What place is this?Where are we now?I am the grass.Let me work.The physical signs of battle do fade, and so do the memories unless they are captured and recorded. Much has been written about the big events of the war. But it is the individual memories that are particularly fascinating to those who study history, and it is an unforeseen consequence of creating this presentation we plan to send memories from at least two of our contributors, John Pimlott and Bernard Warner, to the Imperial War Museum. This is the sort of resource that the Museum treasures - the little personal things that bring home the meaning of war to later generations. So what we aim to bring you this afternoon is snapshots of the Second World War as seen through the eyes of a child. Nowhere can this parallel existence of the big events and the personal experience be better illustrated than by our own Historical Society president, Sir Edward Hulse. During the war Breamore House was requisitioned by the Americans and became a place of major historical importance, General Patton's HQ where the Omaha and Utah beach landings were planned. However, as far as the young Edward Hulse was concerned, it meant that he was evacuated, albeit only to the house of a neighbour, Colonel Stanford, and what he remembers is, “In the days of rationing I found life amazing. Sweet rationing did not apply to troops and they were most generous to children. I was introduced to crystallised fruit. It was wonderful!”But not all the memories are quite so cheerful. John Pimlott writes: “My most poignant memory of childhood is sitting round the family radio on Sunday, 3 September 1939 at 11 am listening to the tired dispirited voice of Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, telling us that we were now at war with Germany. My mother was in the kitchen as she refused to listen. She had lost one brother at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and another, aged 11, to the devastating influenza pandemic which swept across the country as the 1914-18 war ended. My father, who followed politics closely, said, ‘Well, we'll never win a war under him!’ then put on his cap and went to the pub.”In Fordingbridge, while we were researching the history of the school building which is now the Avonway Community Centre, we discovered that in 1940 evacuees from Portsmouth and Southampton arrived and had to be accommodated and educated. As a result local children had lessons on Monday Wednesday and Friday while the evacuees were taught on Tuesday Thursday and Saturday - some of you here may have experienced this part-time schooling. Lessons were interrupted by air raid sirens, but as they were no shelters all the children could do was get under their desks and hope for the best. In the morning and after lunch the Head Girl had to take the completed registers to the police station so that the children could be accounted for if the school suffered a direct hit. Lack of raid shelters also caused Barbara Reid to experience part-time schooling. “My Grammar School had no shelters so for a time we had to go to the High School in Wimbledon on a half-time basis. Eventually shelters were built at my school.” Barbara also remembers Harvest Camps. “These were part of helping to feed Britain. The camps were organised by the schools in the August holidays. We slept in village halls and it was all very basic. Our job was to collect the sheaves of corn and put them into ‘stooks’ to dry. I remember it was very hot and dusty work.”Janet Wallington was born and brought up in Eastbourne, and her war proved quite eventful.“I was born in June 1938 – a year before the start of The War. My father was a serving officer in the RAF, having joined the service in 1931.As the War progressed and my father’s duties became more exacting, my mother and I went to live with my grandfather on the outskirts of Eastbourne. It was a large house on three floors, surrounded by garden. There was a box-room in the roof space with steps up to a cupola with a narrow external parapet round it. The house also had a large cellar. At night, when we heard the air raid siren, we would sit with a torch at the top of the cellar stairs until the All Clear sounded.A contingent of troops from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was billeted in the house next-door, with an ak-ak gun mounted on the roof. We were told by a Canadian soldier that the garage at the back of the house contained enough ammunition to blow up half the town. The Division’s tanks were camouflaged and parked outside our homes under the trees along the road. Once, when Mother was perched on a ladder up a pear tree in the garden, and I was below picking up pears, a German fighter plane flew over and the Canadians opened fire, frightening Mother into falling out of the tree.Our closest encounter with the enemy was when my father had a 48-hour leave. He was dressed in full RAF uniform and during a raid he climbed onto the parapet with his 38 mm Browning revolver and took shots at a German pilot whose plane was circling the house. My father said he could see him clearly, and I remember my mother screaming at him to come down.Another occasion, my grandfather brought home a large piece of shrapnel he had picked up in the avenue. He was very deaf and didn’t hear the sirens. He was sitting on a seat in the sunshine when the house opposite him was bombed and completely demolished – so he brought the shrapnel home as a souvenir.Just before Christmas, 1942, Mother and I were shopping in Bobbys, a local department store. We were in the restaurant and had just been served coffee and an orange squash when the siren went, so we descended to the shop’s basement shelter. After the All Clear went we returned to the restaurant. Our drinks were untouched on the table but covered in shattered glass, and Mother was furious because the waitress made her pay for them. When we collected my pushchair from the foyer we found it had collapsed as all the screws had been blown out by the blast. Opposite was Marks and Spencer – it had been bombed to the ground with 18 people killed and 37 injured.There were many other incidents, but my most vivid memory was of a sunny day on the seafront with Mother. Three aircraft flew in from the sea. People thought they were RAF and waved, but as they approached they started using their machine guns and then flew up and down the seafront shooting. Mother pushed me under a hedge and lay on top of me, and we heard the bullets pattering all around. My lasting memory of the incident was of elderly people in bath chairs in the firing line. I was never told how many people were killed or injured that day.”However, sometimes it wasn't just the enemy you had to worry about: friendly fire existed long before the Americans gave it that name. Retired local vet Dick Orton obviously decided on his future career quite early in life. “My parents were friendly with the local vets in Brecon, and in the school holidays I used to be allowed to go out with them on their visits. All the local farmers were insured against having cattle killed by lightning, but when it happened the vet had to confirm that this was the cause of death so the farmer could make a claim. One day the vet was called up to look at a cow which had been killed in this way. We were following the farmer and his dog - about 10 feet behind - when the dog suddenly keeled over dead. An army 303 bullet had gone clean through its chest and heart. We raced up to identify the dead cow and confirm the cause of death, and got back to the car as quickly as possible!”Other small boys also wanted to help the grown-ups. Back to John Pimlott:“Another event which caused great interest and wry amusement was the formation in the summer of 1940 of the Local Defence Volunteers. Churchill, with his instinct for the common touch, quickly changed the name to the Home Guard. We boys were fascinated by them and firmly believed that even Wehrmacht Shock Troops and the Waffen SS would quake in their boots at the sight of them. Our boyish, blind patriotism knew no bounds. We would watch them drilling and copy their movements. Then we would follow them on their not-too-strenuous route marches. Most of the time we were good-naturedly tolerated, but sometimes a, “Clear off you kids” was directed at us. We suffered this expostulation many times when we were closely examining adult behaviour during the war. Why was a mystery to us. Surely, we, too, were a vital part of the war effort? Very seriously, we formed an HQ in a leaky old garden shed. Here we sat on a form made of a plank over two boxes. With great thought and deliberation we obtained an old kitchen chair and placed it opposite the form. It was to be occupied by Prime Minister Winston Churchill if he had to find a ‘secret bunker’ in the event of a German invasion, and had not died fighting on the beaches or in the fields or in the streets. Here in our little wooden fortress we would never surrender. Though we tried very hard, we could not secure a cigar for him and deemed it an insult to offer him one of my father's purloined Woodbines.” Older boys were also preparing to become directly involved in the war. New member, Nelson French, was also on the south coast during the war.“The Home Guard were not all old codgers as portrayed in "Dad's Army." I was at Brighton College in 1943 and the school Officers Training Corps became a unit of the Home Guard which carried out exercises against other local Home Guard units. One was to capture another unit's HQ, which was based in a golf club clubhouse. The other unit clearly felt secure in their clubhouse, completely surrounded by shaved greens across which it would be very difficult to approach unseen.However, two of our sixth form boys achieved the capture. They borrowed the only gun the unit possessed, a pistol belonging to a master, changed into civilian clothes and drove up to the clubhouse in fits and starts as though the car engine was misfiring. They walked straight in, explained there was a problem with the car and asked politely if they could use the telephone to contact the garage. This got them into the bar where the other unit were all assembled, together with their referee. At this point they produced the pistol and, still politely, requested the members of the other unit to line up facing the wall with their hands in the air. The referee immediately declared that Brighton College had won the exercise, but the other unit - very foolishly - complained to higher authority that this was cheating, only to be sharply put down with, “Do you think invading Germans are going to play by Queensbury Rules?”As for your Chairman and wartime memories - well, I don't have any. As some of you may have heard me say, I am a post-war celebration. My father was a blacksmith who created wrought iron work which sold to Heals and Harrods before the war, but he also did all the things that any village blacksmith would do, shoeing horses and repairing farm machinery, so he was in a reserved occupation, as were most of the men - farmers and farm labourers - in the village. Despite the fact that the men were at home, there were only three babies born in the village between 1939 and 1944, but 11 babies, of whom I was one, were born in 1945. However, I can offer family stories – things that I was told when I asked about the war. My family lived in a village in rural Buckinghamshire, and a number of Italian POWs were employed on the local farms. The Italians, most of whom were peasant farmers, were quite happy working on the land and had not the slightest wish to go back to Europe and fight in a war which was none of their making, so security was very lax. The men were billeted in bunk houses on the various farms and moved around the place with very little supervision. In the evenings they amused themselves by whittling wooden toys for the local children such as a ‘hen and chickens pecking’ toy presented to my sisters. The one thing they really wanted was spaghetti. One of the local farmers asked what you needed to make spaghetti - an exotic foreign dish in those days - and discovered that the only ingredients needed were flour and water, but the missing link was the contraption to extrude the finished product in the proper shape. The Italians were told to see what they could find in the barns, and using abandoned bits and pieces and a length of tubing with some holes drilled in it, they managed to create a spaghetti making machine. Thereafter all the Italians from all the local bunk houses would gather in one barn on a Friday night and make spaghetti, which was draped all over the farm machinery to dry while they spent a sociable evening. Once the spaghetti was dry it was broken up and taken back to all the individual bunkhouses, where it formed the basis for the week’s meals. Thus locals and POWs rubbed along very well together.POWs - theirs and ours - were one major feature of the war. Another was evacuation, and this must have been an incredibly traumatic experience for all concerned. We know that some children had very bad experiences of evacuation but many did not, and our final contribution is from Bernard Warner, was evacuated from London to Cornwall with his younger brother.“At 6.30 am on Monday 17th June 1940, I looked out of the bus window and saw my mother crying. I was two months short of being ten years old and I was being evacuated, with strict instructions to look after my brother, David, who was six and a half.We caught an 8am train from Paddington – exclusively for evacuees to Cornwall. Around midday news ran through the train that France had capitulated. Even at my age, I knew that was bad, very bad, news. My mother kept two letters from that week, so that I have evidence that we disembarked at Camborne at about 5.30pm, transferred to a bus and arrived at our ultimate destination, St Keverne, a village in the Lizard, at 8.30pm. There in the schoolroom, potential foster parents looked us over. David and I were nearly the last to be selected, probably because most villagers were not willing or able to put up two children and because we were too small to help on a farm or (as happened to my cousin Pat) in a seaside hotel. I recorded that we arrived at our billet at 10pm. It had been a very long day and that night the stress must have got to me. For the first time in my life I had asthma.It is difficult now for us to appreciate the atmosphere in which millions of schoolchildren were separated from their parents. Even I, as a former evacuee, am puzzled. I do not remember either David or me being frightened. But I know that my parents were frightened on our behalf. They had seen pictures and read reports of bombing in the Spanish civil war (Guernika) and in Poland in 1939. My brother and I, like millions of other evacuees, and like most of the men (and women) who joined the armed services, did what was expected of us, without protest.Like the majority (estimated at 85%) of evacuees we were not treated badly. In fact we were billeted with a very kind couple. On Wednesday, the second day after we arrived, Mrs Semmens wrote a letter to my mother. It went:-Dear Mrs Warner, Just a few lines to let you know that I’m caring for your two little boys. I’ve got a boy ten and a girl three so they are all happy together. I will do my best to make them comfortable. My husband will have to register next month, so the little ones are a great blessing to me. Bernard’s cough is a lot better. I never heard him for the night. I know what to do for him, as my little boy gets awful chesty. They often speak of you all and we get a lot of fun out of David, he tells us about his baby brother. I will close for the time hoping God will keep you all safe in his keeping, until Peace is proclaimed and your little boys safely returned to you.Best regards from (Mrs) F. C. Semmens