Copyright: G J Wright 2018
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.
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 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, 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 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 extinguish 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. With the exception of 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 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 Hamburg. 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.
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.
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. 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 too much, but the second certainly did. There were two fish and chip shops in St Ives, Hudson’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.
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 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 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 learn to greet them with “Got any gum chum?” I recall standing on the front step with my mother one day and watching group of US airmen, caps awry, ties loose, jackets open, circling the street on bicycles outside 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 Messerschmitt, 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, the Boy Scouts, St John, and finally in 1944 by a contingent of the US Army Air Corps. 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 Hertford 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 somehow 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 its 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 6 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.
To be Contd…
Copyright: G J Wright 2018