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15 October 2014
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SCHOOLBOY TO HOME GUARD TO SHIPWRIGHT

by CSV Action Desk Leicester

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Archive List > The Blitz

Contributed by 
CSV Action Desk Leicester
People in story: 
JOHN FRANK REDVERS FINCH
Location of story: 
PLYMOUTH TO BIRKENHEAD
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
A5171609
Contributed on: 
18 August 2005

I was 15 in 1939 when WW2 began, still at school as a choirboy. I had gone to my church for morning service, only to be told to go home as the PM was to broadcast to the Nation. Afterwards we returned to the church for a service. This was the day that war was declared.

At school sandbags were piled half way up the windows and gummed paper strips were stuck on the glass to prevent the glass flying around if affected by bomb blast.
Plymouth, with its Naval Base and Dockyards was an obvious target for air-raids. At first in the days of the Phoney War, things were rather quiet locally, but after the Germans reached the Channel things changed. Air-raid sirens became the norm.

In 1941 the Luftwaffe bombed Plymouth on successive nights causing massive damage to the City Shopping Centre . At the time there were not many A.A. Guns, they were mainly provided by Royal Naval Ships, especially the Cruiser H.M.S. Newcastle anchored in the Sound.

Later the Devonport area was Blitzed, an area just outside the Dockyard- Goschen Street was obliterated with many civilian casualties.

At the time I was an apprentice in H.M. Dockyard, we attended the Dockyard School for evening classes twice a week. This particular evening we were advised to go home as a raid was building, luckily we did, as the School was among the buildings destroyed.

On the way home, riding my bicycle, with search lights searching the sky, I passed through a poor area. Approaching masked traffic lights which turned red, I decided to keep going as no traffic could be seen. Suddenly I spotted shapes in front of me. It was raining and I couldn’t stop so collided with what turned out to be two ladies carrying a washing basket between them. Luckily I hit the basket and the contents flew in all directions, accompanied by some choice language from the 2 ladies. Deciding that discretion was the best part of valour, I rode on shouting, “Sorry, Sorry”.

After a mile or so I was stopped by a policeman who told me to get under cover. As I was near an Uncles house, I made my way there and stayed until the All-Clear hours later. On arriving home I was greeted by a fire engine dousing a fire on our house roof and my Grandfather looking for me.

The following day I waited until Mid-day before cycling to the Dockyard. The streets outside were scenes of devastation, houses wrecked, the smell of burning in the air, streets covered with rubble and broken glass, fire hoses tangled up.

As a child my wife was in an air-raid shelter with other children and their families. There was a hit on part of the shelter which was under a park, her youngest brother and a number of other children and adults were killed- they were buried together in a communal grave in Efford Cemetery.

On another occasion, Admiralty Fuel Tanks were bombed and set ablaze burning for the best part of a week, a beacon for the Luftwaffe.. Local villages including Hooe and Oreston were evacuated over this period. We went to stay with relatives at Plympton.

During the bombing of 41x42 many Plymothians left the City at the end of the day to spend the night in the surrounding countryside and Dartmoor. We were lucky as just one field way was a limestone quarry under which was a tunnel open at each end.
Only an unlucky bomb blast would have caused casualties.

At the age of 17 I joined the local Home Guard Platoon, my uniform was most ill fitting, the waistband of my trousers almost reaching my armpits. I was issued with a Canadian Ross Rifle complete with bayonet and five rounds of 0.300 ammunition, plus webbing and short black gaiters and boots. We were part of the 15th Devon Home Guard.
Once a week we were taken by army lorry to Wembury Beach, where a hay loft was our overnight quarters. In pairs we patrolled the coastline for an hour before being relieved, at 5am the same lorry collected us and took us back home.

After a couple of years as infantry we handed in our rifles, ammo and bayonets as we were being converted into an A.A. Unit “Z” Batteries, Rocket Launchers. A number of these batteries were set up around Plymouth, rather too late as the City had been blitzed for years.

I recall the first time we fired the rockets “Dantes Inferno” , as 50 plus double barrelled launchers came into action. Smoke, flame, dirt, noise! The mountings left the ground, grass and earth everywhere. In case of a mis-fire the drill was to wait two minutes before removing the dud, sprinting to the nearest hedge and tossing it into the next field.
Happy days, we were young and they were exciting times.

In September 1944 my 4 years trade training in Devonport Dockyard completed, I put on the uniform of the Royal Navy as a Shipwright. In December with hundreds of others, I boarded a train at the H.M.S. Drake station complete with kit, and in my case a box of tools.
We set off through the night and around Mid-Day the following day, arrived at Cammell Lairds yard in Birkenhead. We marched from the gates until looming in front of us was our ship-H.M.S. Venerable. One of the new class of Light Fleet Aircraft Carriers.
After weekend leave we sailed for Scotland to ‘work up’ for a period. Then off Northern Ireland our two Squadrons flew aboard. Off we went in convoy, passing Gibraltar and on the 17th January 1945 we reached Malta to ‘work up’ the ship and squadrons.

Along came V.E. Day, plenty of celebrating going on ashore, no blackout, lights everywhere, wonderful, I was duty watch.

NOTE;
The bombing of Plymouth and Devonport resulted in water mains being put out of use.
Other Brigades from other parts of the country arrived to render assistance bringing with them, their own local equipment. Unfortunately, their fittings did not marry-up with ours.
In the end water mains were laid along the outsides of pavements, obviously quicker than repairing the damaged ones.
At that time besides the local brigades there was the A.F.S. — auxiliary fire service.
Canada sent a sizable contingent of fire-fighters to the City. They remained until much later in the War.

This story was submitted to the “Peoples War Site by Rod Aldwinckle of the CSV Action Desk on behalf of John Frank Redvers Finch and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the terms and conditions of the site.

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