Home, the War & Secondary School
THE FAMILY & ST IVES IN THE 1940s
My memory of the outbreak of the war is sketchy, but I do remember the family sitting around the radio at 11am on 3rd September 1939 as the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced, in sombre tones, “…therefore a state of war now exists between Great Britain and Germany…”. Barely had he finished speaking than an air raid warning sounded. Dad, doubtless with memories of his experiences of shellfire in France twenty years before, put Joy and I on an old sofa against an interior wall of the house with a mattress between us and the window. Ted had been mobilised two days before and had reported to HMS Pembroke at Chatham and later joined HMS Mooltan, a former P & O liner, as a wireless operator. The Mooltan was converted to an armed merchant cruiser and served on convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic.
I had no idea what the declaration of war portended, but obviously the family had vivid memories of the Great War only twenty years before, especially for the ladies and the loss of their two much loved brothers, Ted and Bert.
The wail of the air raid siren became all too familiar through the ensuing months but it soon became clear that set in the countryside St Ives was hardly a priority target for the Luftwaffe. At first, we all gathered in the lounge and played the old game with the mattress, but as time passed and nothing happened we stayed in bed through the alerts. Familiarity does breed contempt.
Shortly after the first heavy raids on London, Aunt Sarah and Mrs Bridgeman arrived. I can’t remember her first name, if I ever knew it, but Mrs Bridgeman took over the household and was remembered for her exclamation, “Quick’s the word, sharp’s the action”.
Looking back, I can’t understand how 13 West Street accommodated so many people, especially since Mr Bridgeman, Jack and Beatrice would sometimes visit. When Ted left, I transferred to his room on the third floor which had a window looking out across Green Street and the countryside beyond. There was an identical, but windowless, room in the roof to the rear which served only as a junk room.
The room at the front, above the shop, had always been the drawing room, but this was converted into a bedroom and this just left the small bedroom to the rear. A tight squeeze, but as the saying then went; ”There’s a war on”.
At first, when there was an air raid alert we all got up and congregated in the lounge. Aunt Sara would have granddad Sam’s chair in the corner by the fire and would sit, clutching a little brown leather attaché case, moaning quietly and mumbling; “Oh why don’t we give up, oh why don’t we just give up…”. In fact, her house at 54 Ellerby Street survived the London blitz intact and stands, little changed, today.
The first year of the war had very little effect upon life in St Ives, things carried on very much as normal. Static water tanks appeared at intersections, flat yellow boards on posts were planted at intervals and were said to somehow indicate the presence of poison gas. Buckets of sand and stirrup pumps appeared everywhere to help deal with incendiary bombs. Everyone was issued with National Identity cards and I remember that my NI number was TEEB 774 — dad was 771 and so on through the family. We were all issued with cardboard boxes with a string sling which contained a smelly black rubber gas mask. It was fashionable to have a case made for the gas mask box, fabricated in an artificial leather cloth called rexine.
The static water tanks became an attraction for boys who would drop carbide into the water, whereat inflammable acetylene gas would bubble to the surface and could be lit to produce a satisfying conflagration. Carbide, which was still used in some bike lamps could then still be bought at the bike shop.
Food ration books made their appearance, but I don’t recall that for the first year or so of the war, that they caused any great hardship. Among other things, pineapples, bananas, oranges and coconuts disappeared, not to be seen again until 1946. Perhaps the greatest hardship, or maybe a blessing, was that sweets and chocolates were rationed to minuscule weekly amounts. Everyone was entitled to a sweet ration and so we kids did not go without. Women would sometimes be spotted collecting their family rations and sporting a green ration book — a sign that they were pregnant. This became a code among the ladies who would mention that so-and-so had a green ration book. The green book also entitled them to 8-ounce bottles of concentrated orange juice, which was much envied
In early June 1940 the town was invaded by groups of bedraggled soldiers who had been rescued from Dunkirk. A unit of the Scottish Borderers landed in George Yard and simply flaked out, fully dressed, and slept. The soldiers remained for several days and after school we were kept busy plying them with jugs of tea and lemonade and I daresay beer sales spiked at the nearby Three Tuns.
At that time, the schools were doing double shifts. We attended in the mornings until noon and in the afternoons, they were taken over by evacuees from London.
Three rolls of concertina barbed wire were set in place on the riverbank at the Waits about 100 yards or so from our house, and in front of the old Grammar School a squat concrete pillbox appeared. I remember on one occasion, probably a couple of years later, witnessing an army exercise and was astonished to see a man in full gear rush forward with his rifle and sling himself across the top of the barbed wire. His colleagues then rushed forward, using him as a bridge over the wire, then leapt into the river and waded to the island opposite, Ingle Holt. During a similar exercise near the Hemingford railway bridge two fully kitted soldiers with rifles found themselves out of their depth and drowned.
On another occasion, troops were skirmishing their way down bridge street using large fireworks called thunder flashes and blank cartridges. We followed them and soon noted that unless they held the thunder flashes for a few seconds after striking them, there was time to pick them up and throw them back — and then run like hell. These devices were quite powerful and mishandled could probably have removed fingers.
Hemingford Meadow was interlaced with a network of trenches, supplemented by ‘A’ frames constructed of steel railway lines – all designed to prevent gliders landing.
As part of the outer defences for the RAF station at Wyton a searchlight emplacement was set just above the intersection of Pig Lane and St Audrey Lane. One night as Aunt Sarah clutched her attaché case, a low flying German aircraft let fly a burst of machinegun fire and extinguished the searchlight. I note that houses now stand on the searchlight site in Myrtle Way.
I, and my buddies, became adept at identifying the various types of allied aircraft by the sound of their engines, but it was the German bombers that were the easiest to recognise. Except for the fighters which seldom reached as far north as St Ives, almost all the German bombers were twins and I believe that unlike allied aircraft, their engines were unsynchronised, which gave rise to a smooth rising and falling note. On the night of 14 November 1940 waves of German aircraft passed over East Anglia and although we did not know it at the time, were heading for a devastating raid on Coventry. We, of course, heard nothing of the actual raid, but the sound of the bombers, which seemed on go on all night, kept us from our beds.
For entertainment, many people formed the habit of listening to William Joyce, also known as Lord Haw Haw, for his upper crust British accent, who broadcast daily propaganda from the Reich’s Sender Bremen. His pronouncements were treated with laughter and derision by everyone until one day he announced that HMS Mooltan had been sunk in the Atlantic. It was some days before the Mooltan sailed into Liverpool and we learned that the ship and brother Ted were safe. Lord Haw Haw sunk the ship several times along with most of the British fleet, but she survived the war and returned to the Australia run as RMS Mooltan. She made news in 1949 when she arrived at Tilbury with a passenger dead from smallpox. She was scrapped in 1954. William Joyce fell into allied hands in 1945, was charged with High Treason, found guilty and executed at Wandsworth Prison in January 1946.
Even though the Germans failed to invade in 1940 and the Luftwaffe was decisively beaten by the RAF over Britain, the news was bleak until late 1942 when the 8th Army in Egypt put Rommel’s Afrika Corps to flight at El Alamein. Church bells across the country were rung for the first time since 1939 in celebration of the victory. Until then the bells were silenced, to be rung only to signal that the Germans had landed.
I and my contemporaries had little idea of what all this meant in terms of soldiers’ lives, loss of armaments, equipment, aircraft and shipping and the general mayhem of war. It was all too exciting. I would listen to the opinions of dad and his WWI buddies and try to make sense of it. Having been a regular soldier Harry became something of an oracle to many locals and I can see him now waving his scissors as he made a point. He had favourites among the commanders and although Montgomery was the Victor at El Alamein, he set more store by General Sir Harold Alexander, a guardsman.
Germany’s attack on Russia in June 1941 and the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, gave rise to a spark of optimism, but there was still little good news. Singapore and Hong Kong fell, the Japanese spread across the Pacific, the Russians were driven back everywhere, and the outlook was bleak. On 10 December 1941 the battleship, HMS Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser, HMS Repulse was sunk in the South China Sea by a Japanese air attack with heavy loss of life.
Rationing was tightened and entitlements reduced, bread and potatoes joined the other essentials on the list. Coal was rationed and the winter was one of the coldest on record. Baths were restricted to 6 inches of hot water to save electric power! Although sometimes in short supply, two items remained free of rationing through the war; beer and fish and chips. The first did not concern me, but the second certainly did. There were two fish and chip shops in St Ives, Hodson’s in the Broadway and Stapleton’s in East Street. The former had a reputation for hygiene and the latter less so, but both knew how to fry fish and chips. “One piece and three” was the cry, meaning one piece of fish and three pennyworth of chips — “Oh, and a pennyworth of scraps please”. Scraps were the small pieces of well fried crispy batter that fell off and were occasionally dredged from the pan to be deposited in a heap on a warming ledge at the top of the fryer. In an attempt at black humour one would sometimes hear people ordering. “One piece of dead German and six pen’oth please”— on the premise that men of the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine would end up dead in the North Seas where most of the fish originated.
Sometime during this period, all iron railings, functional or decorative, public or private, were removed and taken for salvage. They were wrenched from the ground or cut off from low walls, leaving little metal stumps. This was carried out nationwide and must have yielded a considerable quantity of recyclable metal.
At the same time, housewives were encouraged to surrender their aluminium cooking pots and kettles, indeed they were encouraged to do so as a patriotic duty to help build more aircraft, particularly Spitfires.
Doubtless we were fortunate living in the country where comestibles could be sourced from under the counter. Grandad Sam worked for the wholesale grocer, George Russell and Sons in the Broadway, where rationed items were known to slip off the back of a truck. Dad had his allotment which kept up a good supply of fresh vegetables. Aunt Grace kept chickens which maintained our supply of beautiful eggs and an occasional bird for the pot. Uncle Charlie had his shot gun and there were plenty of rabbits on Model Farm. He also kept the ‘Girls’, particularly Grace and Francis, in fox furs which would be tanned locally and turned into warm fashion items which would be draped over the shoulders, head fastened to tail. Charlie famously shot a hen house raiding fox from his bedroom window.
Another source of supplement was a farm about 400 yards from home where, among other things, the farmer’s wife sold milk, made butter and occasionally killed a pig. Mrs Anderson held court in the spacious, well equipped kitchen of a large red farmhouse. I have vivid memories of being sent by mum clutching a hand full of coins for a can of milk or a pound of butter. This was real milk and real butter. Looking back, I’m sure that this was what was termed “Black Market” dealings and thoroughly illegal. It was probably fine for the Andersons to make and consume their own milk and butter, but not to sell it. I know that there were notorious cases that went to court and were severely punished, but these were typically on a large scale. To kill any kind of farm animal for food required a permit, probably from the Ministry of Food who also had control over its disposal.
The name of the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, was widely disparaged, but the former head of a large British chain store applied his business skills to devising a rationing scheme that was fair and equitable. This built up a sense of fairness and trust. He believed that the public should be educated and helped, not just instructed. Ironically by the end of the War, the country was fitter and healthier than it ever had been, the whole the population was slimmer and healthier than it is today. Many people ate a better diet during rationing than they had before the war.
Restaurants and cafes were still open and did not seem to be too bothered by shortages. We would sometimes take tea and cakes in a cafe, at which mum would produce from her handbag a small tin into which she emptied any sugar left in the bowl on the table. She called it “Gold dust” and anyway, she would say, “we paid for it!”
One bright spark was that in the winter of 1941 the Great Ouse froze from bank to bank which caused us to drag out our old skates and desperately look for suitable footwear on which to attach them with screws and leather straps. This method of fastening was never satisfactory but one never thought about skating until the opportunity arose. Grandad Sam told a story of a freeze at some indeterminate date in the 19th century when an ox was spit roasted on the ice in the St Ives bridge pool. There was also a family story of one of the Attwood brothers skating along the river all the way to Bedford sometime before the 1914 war, a distance of forty to fifty miles.
The nine o’clock news on the radio was sacrosanct, everything stopped especially for the frequent speeches of Mr Churchill. Sunday was special because before the news the national anthems of all the allies were played by a military band. The family took several daily newspapers, among them the Mirror and the Daily Express, and on Sunday the Sunday Express, the Chronicle and the News of the World. Weekly we had the Illustrated and the Picture Post magazines which were pored over for days and then consigned to the shop. As well as the serious stuff I also had the weekly comics, ‘‘Beano’ and ‘Knockout’, the latter featuring Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter and Mr Squelch of Greyfriars School.
The Regal Cinema was about one hundred yards from home and we had a programme advertising board on the front of the shop which entitled a family member to a free show once a week. The shows started with the national anthem, to which everyone stood, and consisted of a short and a feature film. After the interval came the news segment which was eagerly awaited because invariably it was all about the war and, to us, much more compelling! A feature of the weeknight cinema was the swirling smoke laden atmosphere through which the projection beams shone like searchlights. The evils of smoking tobacco had yet to be realised.
An alternative was the Saturday morning ‘matinees’ which cost three pence to enter and tended to show cowboy films and humour such as “Laurel and Hardy”, “The Three Stooges” or “The Dead End Kids”. The former had the audience on the edge of their seats and were often accompanied by cheers, the latter greeted by gales of laughter. These shows usually became a minor riot with all sorts of missiles contributing to the general mayhem. But, it kept the kids off the streets and out of mischief!
By 1942 it was becoming clear that even after Italy joined the Axis, Germany and Japan had been over ambitious and were beginning to reap the whirlwind. In late 1942, early 1943, Stalin, or Uncle Joe as he was popularly known, stopped the Wehrmacht in its tracks on the Volga at Stalingrad and entrapped and destroyed the German Sixth Army. This feat was worthy of another round of bell ringing, but I can’t remember if this happened, but this battle did prove to be the turning point of the war.
At the same time the US 8th Army Air Corps and its B17 Flying Fortress bombers began to dominate the daytime skies over East Anglia. Dozens of airfields were constructed in short order all over the Eastern Counties and local sand and gravel merchants became very wealthy almost overnight. The RAF flew raids deep into Europe by night, and the USAAC escorted by long-range fighters kept the Reich on its toes by day.
The delayed arrival of the “Yanks” occasioned a lot of interest. Kids soon learned to greet them with “Got any gum chum?” I recall standing on the front step with my mother one evening and watching group of US airmen, caps awry, ties loose, jackets open, circling the street on bicycles outside the nearby public house, the Three Tuns. Opposite, Mrs Brown, a staid Victorian lady, watched them for a bit, then turned to my mother and said “Are they Germans Miss Wright?”.
Throughout the latter part of the war there were special weeks designed to persuade people to invest in National Savings. These were accompanied by exhibitions of trophies such as a shot down Messerschmidt 109, a captured gun or similar exhibits. Air Force week, Navy week, Army week, and so on. All this was often accompanied by parades by local Army units, the RAF, the ARP, , St John, and finally in 1944 by a contingent of the US soldiers. The latter scandalised the inhabitants of St Ives by marching down Market Hill swinging their arms across their body, rifles on the wrong shoulder, all to the tune of a swing band!
This routine continued until practically the end of the war in 1945. We would go to bed to the roar of Lancaster bombers taking off from RAF Wyton which was barely two miles away and wake to the sound of the aircraft returning. Wyton eventually became the base for the Pathfinder force commanded by Air Vice Marshall Bennett who had his headquarters at Brampton near Huntingdon. The Pathfinders used high flying Mosquito bombers to locate and accurately mark the target for the night for the heavies which followed.
Two tragic incidents relating to Wyton remain in my memory. One evening, about 10 PM, as we were leaving the Regal Cinema, the sky to the west was lit by an intense white flash. The following morning on the way to school in Huntingdon, at the junction of the Houghton Road and Hartford Road, adjacent to the headmaster’s house, in a field lay the remains of an aircraft. It seems that the Mosquito aircraft of the Pathfinder force had crashed shortly after take-off from Wyton. The white flash had been caused by the pyrotechnics that it had on board. Only the engines remained.
Another day, I had just returned home from school when the house shook to an enormous explosion. I raced up three flights of stairs and from my bedroom window saw a mushroom cloud rising above Wyton Aerodrome. Although the incident was hushed up, we later heard that somehow a blockbuster bomb being loaded into a Lancaster had exploded.
In the morning as we started school the USAAC 8th Air Force would take to the skies and we would stand on the playing field watching and counting the ‘Forts’ from surrounding bases assemble into huge formations before heading East. As we left for home in the afternoon the bombers would be returning, many to Alconbury which was about four miles North of the school. Some would show signs of damage, some with one or more engines stopped and occasionally leaving a smoke trail. Later in the war large wings of long range fighters, P41 Mustangs and P47 Thunderbolts would sweep over the school at low level head for the rendezvous point on the East Coast.
Mention of the school playing field take me to Huntingdon Grammar School which was then situated beside the main LNER trunk line and just out of Huntingdon. Founded in 1565 for boys, the school became mixed in 1902. On 1st September 1939, a new school building was opened surrounded by expansive playing fields. Among the school’s several notable pupils were Oliver Cromwell (1644), the Lord Protector of England and Samuel Pepys who became Secretary to the Navy and keeper of the famous diary. Other notable pupils were the Gifford family triplets, Faith, Hope and Charity one of whom became the first woman governor of Holloway Prison.
In 1943, at age eleven, I and a number of my contemporaries, sat the ‘scholarship’ examination and at the start of the school year in September became ‘special place pupils’ at Huntingdon Grammar School. At no time, then or later, did anyone explain to us the meaning of a ‘Special Place’ or the intent of a Grammar School education. It seemed to be presumed that we knew! No one in my family had ever attended anything but an elementary school and that attendance often short lived—so mum and dad had no idea of the import or potential of such an education. It was clear to the successful scholarship candidates that an element of prestige attached to passing the examination and gaining entry to the school. This seemed to be an end in itself. To the best of my knowledge, the first in the immediate family to attend a University and gain a degree was my younger son Michael and that in the 1990s.
During the summer school holidays mum and I, along with dozens of other new students and families, attended a familiarisation gathering in the hall at Huntingdon Grammar School. We were addressed by the headmaster, Dr Norman Armstrong, and several other members of the staff. I think that the lists of uniform clothing, gym and sports gear, including a gym bag with a draw string, rulers, pencils, geometry instruments and etcetera, came as a bit of a shock to many — on the basis of cost alone. When the staff, together with the headmaster moved around the hall to take questions, I was mortified when mum asked the head if it would be acceptable for me to wear boots instead of shoes. It was believed in the family that I had weak ankles and needed to wear boots. Armstrong agreed that it would be acceptable, but I started school at the end of September in an elegant new pair of black shoes. I don’t know where the ‘weak ankle’ bit came from, but I never looked at boots again except in the RAF and the Kenya Police, and the latter only for formal parades!
So, at the end of September 1943, I and Keith Radford, John Peters, Keith Coates, and Sydney Mitchell, among others, decked in our new school uniforms, boarded an Eastern Counties bus outside Clements Booksellers on Market Hill, St Ives, for the first of many six-mile journeys to Huntingdon Grammar School. Also, on the bus were senior students, several of whom were prefects or had been appointed bus monitors and were charged with keeping order.
I suppose that my time at HGS were happy years although there was some stress, especially in related to some subjects and homework. For instance, mathematics was a closed shop to me and though I was able to make sense of geometry and to a certain extent trigonometry, I was never able to come to grips with algebra which, even after five years of toil, to this day remains a mystery! I have a vivid recollection of the form’s first lesson in maths which may account for my lack of understanding, even antipathy. The regular maths master had gone to war and an elderly gentleman named Cresswell came out of retirement. On that day he chalked columns of what, to us, appeared to be hieroglyphics on the board, sat down and told us to get on with it. He then placed his large bald head in his hands, closed his eyes and went to sleep — his top dentures slipping grotesquely. We later learned that the mess on the blackboard were termed equations, but, for me, they remain a mystery. The great thing about Mr Cresswell was that he didn’t seem bothered as to whether we performed or even understood.
In contrast, the physics master, one Maurice Barbannell, gowned and of fierce mien, paid excessive attention to our performance. On Monday mornings, he would return our physics homework which usually consisted of a sketch and description of an experiment completed in the laboratory the previous week. He would direct his attention to someone who had not met his expectations and in a booming voice say, “Half marks this week Smith, why?” There would always be several who did not come up to scratch and I think that the punishment was to repeat the homework. He met his match however when one lad, a London evacuee called Shine responded, “You marked it, you should know.” I can’t recall Moe’s response was to that, probably a hundred lines and a repeat, but nothing ever fazed Shine. Barbanell also had an unfortunate habit of bearing down on the target of his wrath and beating him on the head with the wooden blackboard cleaner. I don’t think that he tried that on the girls! Fortunately, I managed to cope with physics, one of my better subjects.
Some years later, whilst serving in the RAF in Aden, my mother sent me a copy of the local newspaper, the Hunt’s Post, containing a report of Barbanell’s death by suicide. It seemed that his wife, Maria, had died of cancer and he elected to follow her. Moe had a soft side after all.
In one of his classes, I remember being puzzled when on leaving a visitor said to Barbanell; “Next Year in Jerusalem”.
Just down the block, was the chemistry lab rule over by Mr Stewart newly returned from a hush-hush government job. It was said that he was involved in research into the successor for TNT, a more potent explosive known as RDX. At school, Stewart was more commonly known as “Twanger” based upon a habit, it was said, of pulling and releasing the elastic in the leg of girl’s knickers.
Miss Pearson was the girls’ PT instructor and acted as the school nurse. Miss Tuck taught English and supervised hockey. The two seemed inseparable and I believed lived together. But, in the autumn of 1944 Miss Tick returned to school as Mrs Dyer. This led to a yarn that someone had been sent by the office to a classroom to enquire “Is Mrs diarrhoea?”
Another character was the French mistress, Miss (Bunny) Williams. There were times when she seemed to be on another planet. From time to time she would stand up, gaze vacantly around the class, stamp her foot and exclaim; “Go for the cane”, then, “if you are talking” and then sit down. Her concept of discipline, perhaps.
Her colleague, Monsieur Charles, laboured tirelessly to instil some French grammar into we oiks. I can still decline the verb “To be”! He was a grey character, but was keen on fostering Anglo-French relationships. I remember that for half a crown donation he would supply an elegant little enamel badge bearing the Cross of Lorraine and the words; “Ami des volontaires français”.
Mr “Trapper” Hall was the geography teacher who preceded Dr Illman. An amiable character who was more than keen on football. Barry, his son, was in our class and I recall was constantly worried about not having broad shoulders like Bill.
A sports and PT master, a Welshman, with a Welsh name, who had better remain nameless achieved some notoriety by striking up a relationship with a sixth form girl from St Ives. They made no attempt to hide what was going on and I believe that the affair continued after she left school.
I don’t believe that I ever achieved much at school, I certainly didn’t excel. I enjoyed most subjects with the exception of maths. My favourite was English and I hesitate to think how many essays I wrote about sailing ships and storms. Having never been in a sailing ship, or a storm at sea, I owed much to the author C S Forester and his books about Hornblower.
Huntingdon Grammar School followed the seasonal sports ritual with football in the winter and cricket and athletics in the summer. Also, in the summer was a token swimming event, two lengths of the distance between the road bridge and the railway bridge in Godmanchester on the River Ouse. In total a distance of about 1 mile all closely chaperoned by masters and senior students in punts. I think that I entered this event three times and was eventually awarded my half swimming colours, which I still have.
Quite how I became part of Cromwell’s (my house) boxing team I cannot now recall. I must have been either cajoled or coerced, because I had no real interest in boxing. I recall one of my matches which the Hunt’s Post reported as a wild bout. I never mastered the technicalities of boxing and dropped out just as soon as I could. My father was mightily disappointed, but, I suspect at the urging of my mother, he accepted this disgrace.
Football and cricket were the other impositions, winter and summer. I was appointed to the house team as right full-back. Again, this “sport” did not appeal to me but it was unavoidable. I remember the relief on one occasion when John Peters and I travelled to Huntingdon by bus to take part in a Saturday morning match only to find it had been cancelled because of the weather.
Cricket, I found even more of a trial and usually I contrived to be elected back stop. This meant that I was far enough from the action to be able to slip away into the spinney and drift down to the river. Clearly it must have been recognised by the enthusiasts that my heart wasn’t really in it.
One other activity which I did not find so onerous, was athletics. Running, sprints, proved to be beyond me because in 100 yard race, at about 75 yards my legs cease to function. But, I found that I could jump, both high and long jump and this, ultimately, caused me to be awarded half athletic colours.
Whilst we were being educated, the combined Allied forces landed on the Normandy coast on 6th June 1944 and it was predicted that the war would be over by Christmas. However, after some hard fighting, particularly in Normandy, later in the Ardennes and at Arnhem, the business dragged on until May 8, 1945.
In the first months of 1944 the date of D-Day, the landing in France, became a guessing game, but the evidence was everywhere. For months, the cattle market in St Ives had been filled with Bren gun carriers, quad tractors, ammo limbers and 25 pounder guns. Elsewhere, invisible to us, the build-up of troops and materiel was said to be incredible. Overhead, air activity had intensified and one intriguing development was to see Stirling and Halifax bombers each towing strings of two or three troop carrying gliders.
I had a friend, Roy Atkins, who with his mother was staying with a relative, Ron Senescall who was the owner of a corn and seed merchant’s business in Free Church passage. One day when I was visiting Ron ran from his office shouting for us, that is Roy and myself, to jump into his car. As we drove along Needingworth Road Ron explained that a bomber had crashed just outside of the village, near a barn where he was storing corn.
At the scene, just off the road, we were stopped by RAF policeman at a safe distance. Emerging from the car, we saw the remains of what appeared to have been a Lancaster bomber in emitting a pall of black smoke with occasional bursts of deep red flame. Periodically there were loud cracks caused by, the SP said, exploding ammunition. An RAF five-ton truck pulled up and the driver extracted and threw several sheets of corrugated iron into a nearby ditch. Several of the sheets which had evidently been used as stretchers, were covered with blood.
About the same time, a Stirling bomber crashed into the main street of Somersham a village about 4 miles north of St Ives. Apart from the aircrew, the crash killed eight local residents.
The summer holidays from school, a 6 to 8 week break through August and September was an eagerly awaited respite. After I started secondary school a large part of these holidays were spent at Winteringham with my aunt Flo and uncle Teddy. Florence was my father’s elder sister. Teddy Cole worked on a farm owned by one Thomas Hawkey. The Hawkeys lived in Winteringham Hall, a large building dating from Victorian times. Curiously, it was three parts surrounded by a moat which tended to indicate that it was the site of an earlier building. Aunt Flo worked two or three days a week in the house for Mrs Hawkey and we often ate in the kitchen
The Hawkeys, had two sons and a daughter. The elder son, Michael, was serving in the RAF and was later killed whilst piloting a Catalina flying boat. The younger son, David, about the same age as myself, became a close friend. I remember on one of Michael’s leaves when we went up the back of the farm where he demonstrated firing his service pistol. Peggy, the daughter, was just a little younger than Michael.
Winteringham stood on a slight rise and overlooked St Neots and the Valley of the River Ouse. Just to the south of St Neots rose the two enormous condensers of Tempsford power station which had become a target for the Luftwaffe. We inspected evidence in one of Tommy Hawkeys fields just above St Neots where what was alleged to have been a landmine left an enormous crater.
One day, we were watching two US P 47 Thunderbolts practice dogfighting over St Neots when suddenly they collided. One pilot bailed out and landed safely by parachute, but the other was killed when he hit the ground near Eynesbury. Somehow, I acquired a piece of the wing tip of one of these aircraft and returned home with it triumphantly tied with string to the front of my bicycle basket. This was added to my collection of shrapnel, cartridge cases and other memorabilia.
On another occasion David and I went with his father to visit his grandfather’s farm at Yelling in Bedfordshire. Whilst his father tended to whatever business had taken him to Yelling we wandered around the farm which bordered a US Army Air Corps base. Near some gravel pits we were surprised to hear some shots and on investigation found an American officer who was carrying a Colt .45 automatic pistol. He told us that he was shooting coneys, or rabbits in civilised parlance. David told the American that he was on his grandfather’s farm which was private property. The American was most apologetic and asked if he could get permission to shoot. David said that he would talk to his grandfather on one condition, that the American would show as over one of the B-17 Flying Fortresses. No problem. We were soon being awed by the interior of the aeroplane. It was there that we learned the meaning of the expression “the full 9 yards”. The ammunition for the fifty calibre machine guns was laid out in racks which were 9 yards long. David took the name of the American but I do not know whether he spoke to his grandfather.
For some three years, through to the end of the war, my harvest job was riding a horse and cart out to the fields where the cart was loaded with sheaves of corn and then led back to the rick yard. There, the sheaves were built into oval stacks which in turn were very neatly thatched. Steel rods were thrust into each stack at about waist level and these were checked for temperature at regular intervals. This was to avoid the possibility of spontaneous combustion.
During the winter contractors would arrive with a steam traction engine, a threshing drum, and an elevator. The corn, wheat, barley, or oats would be extracted and poured into sacks.
Part of the workforce on the farm were German prisoners of war. Amiable young men, they were housed in a row of huts to the rear of the farm buildings. I can’t recall whether there were any guards, but the prisoners were all too aware of how fortunate they were to be working on an English farm, rather than fighting for the Fuhrer in Europe. Recently, asked by a German friend, where I had picked up a few words of German, I was able to say; “von Kriegsgefangenen”.”
On August 15, 1945 I happened to be visiting a nearby farm owned by two brothers, the Gandersons. Their elderly mother rushed out in an excited state and declared that Japan had surrendered after it had been hit by two atomic bombs. They were convinced that as a pupil of Huntingdon Grammar School I should be able to explain to them how an atomic bomb worked. I hadn’t a clue. At that time, we were still being taught by Mr Barbanell that an atom was the smallest indivisible particle of matter.
Sometime during this period, I arrived home from school one afternoon to find my mother propped up in bed nursing a heavily bandaged right hand and looking rather ill. It seems that she had been engaged in something she had done a thousand times before, extracting laundry from the electric washing machine and putting it through the attached wringer when something had stuck and stalled the machine. Instead of hitting the failsafe knob on the top of the wringer which would have released the rollers, she had tried to pull the item back against the strength of the machine and in the process her hand had been pulled between the rollers. The back of her hand had been stripped to the bone. For many weeks after that a girl from St John called every afternoon to change the dressing. She was dedicated and even today I feel the weight of the family’s appreciation. Regretfully I no longer recall her name.
The washing machine was Canadian and one of the first of its kind. I believe that it was acquired from the showroom of a local electricity company just before the outbreak of war. It was unusual and much-admired back then.
When the street parties were done and the flags packed away people found that things were very much as they had been before. Rationing continued for most items, indeed, did so until well into the 1950s. A couple of things did evince some sense of relaxation, the blackout restrictions were removed and church bells were untethered.
Just before VJ Day, in July 1945, a General Election brought a change of government with Labour under Clement Attlee removing the Conservative Party from power. Many felt that this was hardly a gesture of thanks for Mr Churchill and his wartime leadership. Although the result was predictable, it was nonetheless a shock. The slide to labour was ascribed to a promise by Mr Attlee to immediately commence and speed up the demobilisation of men from the armed services. I recall that brother Ted had instructed all the eleigible family members to vote labour!
I don’t recall the exact date, but sometime in late 1945 Ted returned from Trinidad via New York and was demobilised from the Royal Navy. I recall the occasion because unpacking his kit bag he revealed a large box of sweets and chocolate which he had bought in New York – lifesavers and Hershey chocolate bars to name but a few. Mum took control of this horde and it was made to last many weeks.
Although I can’t now be certain, I seem to recollect that he arrived in St Ives with his new wife, the former Elsy Brockman. He had met Elsy whilst she was serving as a WREN at HMS Pembroke on the Medway in Chatham.
Sometime in 1946 it was announced that the St Ives Scout group, which had been in recess through the war, was to be reformed. The group leader, the Scoutmaster, was to be Walter Freeman who was newly returned from five years with the RAF in India. Wally was well known to the family. He worked at Enderby’s Mill and was something of a character and didn’t exactly set off a scout uniform. He referred frequently to his time in India and had the habit of taking a long pull on his cigarette and saying, “when I was in Poona…” Going on to recount some imperial incident. Ernie Drake, a similarly recently demobilised servicemen became the assistant Scoutmaster.
The District Commissioner, Professor, Major Haldsworth, lived in a large house in the shadow of the parish church. He played a very active part in the affairs of the Scout troop. A bachelor, he had a Scottish lady housekeeper, Mary, who from time to time would hangout his World War I uniforms for an airing. These became an item of some interest. I believe that he served in the Army Intellgence Corps.
Haldsworth, was a curious, fussy individual, doubtless well-meaning, but who would today be described as a nerd. He had a reputation for being able to complete a Times crossword in under 10 minutes.
I recall once when John Peters and I had to perform a hike leaving from and returning to Haldsworth’s house the following day. Having completed the formalities on our return the professor suggested that we should both go home and enjoy a long hot bath. Rather cheekily, John said “Right ho, we’ll get the kettle on”.
Both Freeman and Drake had kept their pre-war scout uniforms and accoutrements including the lemon squeezer hat. I seem to recall that Ernie Drake always wore long khaki drill trousers, but Wally always appeared in shorts, white cut and down to the knee of the type customarily called “Bombay bloomers”.
John Peters and I became patrol leaders, I to the Heron patrol. The Troop met on Friday nights in the Constitutional Hall which was opposite the Regal Cinema in the Broadway.
The “Party”, from the Hunts Post, contributed by Harry Cotton.
The traditional, lemon squeezer scout hat was not then available and we were obliged to make do with berets, that is, except John Peters, who appeared on parade resplendent in his father Jim’s pre-war scout hat. The uniform consisted of black serge shorts and a green shirt of a course itchy material. This was topped by an orange neckerchief held in place by a “Woggle” which might be of any number of materials, wood, leather, but quite often a carefully constructed cord knot, a “Turks head”.
Before one officially became a scout, you had to swear an oath which went something like this: “I swear to do my duty to God and the King, to a obey the Scout Law, and to help other people at all times.” This sort of oath was so common at that time that I thought nothing about it and it was not until a few years later that I began to question the idea. One swore a similar oath on joining the armed services.
On Friday evenings the troop fell in by patrols, each scout carrying a five-foot ash stave and wearing a knife on the belt. We then engaged in a variety of activities. Knots, splicing, whipping and lashings were all mastered and used to construct all manner of structures, tent supports, watchtowers, bridges over small streams. I have found this rope work useful all my life.
We learned semaphore and morse code using flags and lamps which, apart from practice, I don’t recall that we ever used either. But, curiously, I can still remember both codes more than 70 years later. I doubt that contemporary scouts learn these skills, they probably communicate in the field using a smart phone and have carbon fibre staves!
First aid was also large on the agenda and we spent time bandaging the injured, applying armed slings and splinting legs. Artificial respiration was covered by applying the then fashionable Holger Neilson method. As I recall, this involved, laying the patient on his front, placing the hands under the forehead and alternately raising the elbows and applying pressure to the back of the chest.
We also played games, both indoors and out. One indoor game I recall was British Bulldog where one team was stationed in the middle and the other at the end of the hall. The idea was to rush across to the other end without being caught – mayhem, a sort of rugby without a ball. Outdoors, day or night, one game involved splitting the troop into two, with one half defending a pennant on a staff and the others trying to reach it without being detected. The name of this game I have forgotten.
Opposite the sandbanks on the River Ouse about a mile or so above St Ives were a couple of fishing huts, one of which belonged to Jack Dines. Next door was an open paddock where we used to camp. Equipment was hard to come by at that time, but I managed to secure a khaki US Army one-man ‘Pup’ tent. This tent had no walls and was open at one end, nonetheless, so long as one pitched it into wind, it served. I made a sleeping bag by folding two light army surplus blankets and roughly stitching the sides. But it was heavy. The troop also owned some six-man ridge tents and a couple of bell tents – doubtless ex-Army too.
Each year in August or September he whole troop would travel to North Norfolk where we camped on the Earl of Leicester’s estate at Holkam and on one occasion at Cromer. The year after I left the troop, probably 1949, they ventured further afield and held the annual camp on Guernsey in the Channel Islands.
In 1947 John Peters and I attended the first post-war International Scout Jamboree at Moisson on the Seine near Paris. The occasion was named the Jamboree de la Mondial de la Paix. The group of about 20 Huntingdonshire scouts were conducted by a Scoutmaster from Peterborough, the Rev Nadkarni. We crossed the Channel from New Haven to Dieppe and passed through Rouen on the way to Moisson. The campsite was on a bend in the Seine and on the north side setback on a hill, was the Château de la Roche Guyon which had been Rommel’s headquarters during the 1944 Normandy campaign.
There were 30,000 scouts at the jamboree drawn from around the world. The Antipodean contingent had travelled by sea and took about four months to complete the round trip. The Scout uniforms were varied and colourful and some units wore their national dress. We were surprised to see the US contingent wearing long trousers as part of the uniform – I don’t know what Baden Powell would have made of that.
French sea scouts had constructed a full rigged sailing ship using timber obtained on the Jamboree site and named the “Pourquoi Pas?” It was cleverly done and decked with a full suite of sails, for’sles and the spanker set and dressed overall.
We crammed a lot into those two weeks, attending national displays in the main arena, going on hikes with French scouts. On one occasion we hiked up to Rommel’s Château above La Roche Guyon and took in the sweeping views of the river. I remember stopping to buy un demi kilo de raisons, fresh. We stopped to watch a troop of French scouts taking a swim in the Seine ingeniously using their neckerchiefs as swimming togs. Tempted, but we didn’t join them.
Religion then being part of the Scout ethos strictly denominational services were held in the main arena.
Then, we went to Paris. We visited all the sites in central Paris, walked up the Champs Elyses to the L’Arc de Triomphe. In Montmartre we visited the Cathedral, the Sacre Couer, and stood outside of the famous Moulan Rouge night club. We stood under the Eiffel Tower but it was closed, shut for post war maintenance and renovations.
I can’t recall whether it was on the same day, but we went by train to Chantilly about 25 miles north of Paris and which was, and I believe still is, the centre of French horse racing.
All good things come to an end and at the end of two weeks after an impressive closing ceremony we packed up and returned to “Blighty”. Being in sub camp Languedoc we were offered a further two weeks in Languedoc as guests of the local scouts. I can’t recall why we did not take up this offer, probably cost.
In 1947 photography was on 120 film which provided for eight exposures. The film was developed and printed by a studio in St Ives. John had a Kodak Box Brownie and I had a Kershaw Penguin folding camera which had been given to me by aunt Grace. The results left a lot to be desired but were typical of amateur photography then.
The winter of 1946/47 was particularly hard with heavy snowfall. Sometimes the roads became impassable to motorised transport and school was cancelled. Late in the season, RAF Wyton released their runway snowploughs to clear local roads. These powerful machines picked up the snow and shot it over the hedgerows.
In early spring the snow began to melt, bringing with it another problem, flooding. Low-lying parts of St Ives were inundated, including West Street, outside our front door. The Council sent out the town cryer, Mr ‘Nimble’ Newman, and appealed for flood watch volunteers as it was feared that the water level might increase. John Peters and I volunteered and we were stationed on the Waites in front of Anderson’s butchers shop. About midnight we became aware of that the water level was rapidly dropping and we watched it go down by about a foot in 15 minutes.
This sudden drop was observed all over the town and no one could think of a rational explanation. The next day it was revealed that the riverbank near Earith had burst, allowing the water to flood across the Fens. Over the following weeks half a dozen Army amphibious tracked Buffalo vehicles were sent to Earith where they were dropped into the gap in the riverbank and the gap was sealed.
The Buffaloes crossed St Ives Bridge and one swerved on the northern end of the bridge and demolish the wall in one of the bays. The vehicles were a tight fit anyway, and being lever steered it was quite a delicate operation. Later, bricks that had fallen into the river were recovered and used to repair the breach.
The Navy sent in large diesel powered pumps and it took about six months for the water to be cleared from the Fens and put back where it belonged.