- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Geoff Webb
- Location of story:
- Redbourn, Hertfordshire
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 August 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Three Counties Action on behalf of Geoff Webb and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
When Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation one sunny Sunday morning in September 1939, telling us Great Britain was at war with Germany, such stark news was received with bewildered misgivings. It had been everyone’s hopes and dreams that lives sacrificed in the 1914-18 massacres were for a permanent peace, but the Nazi threat to European countries in the late thirties had grown increasingly ominous. From busy industrious cities to villages set in pastoral solitude this was a time of emergency, when groups of volunteers were quickly formed to thwart an imminent invasion. As the first alerts were sounded by A.R.P. wardens dashing around the village on bicycles, blowing sharp blasts on their whistles, people hurried to take shelter. It wasn’t long before a siren was installed near the centre of our community, and its initial wailing quickened the steps of shoppers, because speed seemed the natural precaution to take for self preservation. Within seconds the High Street, and other village roads, were deserted. After a short period the ‘all clear’ brought inhabitants from shelters like ants emerging from underground chambers, busily jabbering and relieved the first ‘test’ was over.
At the back of the infants school long trenches were dug in the Common, with earth mounded over the top, acting as a protective roof for the tots. Air raid drill became a regular lesson, and when the siren sounded orderly crocodiles of chattering children left the school, appearing to drain into the bowels of the earth. Conscription soon took young men into the armed forces, while at home small squads of Home Guard, Fire service and A.R.P. were rapidly formed, with Dad, Uncle Bert and Ray joining the last. Our Home Guard used to parade with pitch-forks, broom handles or anything that might cause some discomfort to the enemy, but when rifles were eventually issued they soon looked a well drilled and proficient unit. The Fire Service was quite primitive at the start, but after a lot of conscientious effort, the firemen blossomed into a fast working contingent, capable of handling any emergency.
From these early days our present Fire Service was born, but before moving into a modern station, their depot was a building behind a garage at the top of the High Street. The Service was continued after the war with this barn-like structure acting not only as a home for the engine, but also as a social centre for the firemen. Heated by a coke stove the fire station saw many a convivial evening spent around a full-sized snooker table, these comforts proving irresistible as a few firemen even met during the daytime for a quick frame or two. One agitated wife, thinking her husband should have been attending to his business, angrily rushed into the room just as a deciding black was attempted, and scooping up the balls, ran and threw them into the High Street. It was like a fire alert as firemen raced after the scattered balls, bringing many a laughing quip from locals watching the black and yellow smartly retrieved while bowling along the gutter, almost outside the Post Office.
With the possibility of gas being used as a weapon of war it wasn’t long before every person was issued with a gas mask, with A.R.P. wardens having the unenviable task of going round to each household to fit and adjust residents’ masks. Dad, of course, had our side of the common as part of his programme, but soon ran into a slight problem when calling on relatives nearby. While Dad was helping to adjust my aunts mask, uncle, trying to be helpful, had quickly taken his from its box and put it on, but Dad got the impression his arm waving was only a sign of premature panic until he noticed uncle’s neck gradually turning an angry purple. Instantly ripping it off, and helping the victim to regain his breath, dad discovered ample tissue paper still rammed into the breathing apparatus of the nose piece.
As ration books and coupons became necessities of daily life, our whole existence seemed somewhat regimented and dull, but after hearing and reading of nightly bombardments of London and other big cities, we in the country were thankful to be out of the firing line. With the blitz worsening, London children were evacuated into the country, until such time as it was deemed safe to return. The party allotted to our village was met at St. Albans station by local car owners and brought to the Scout Hut on the common. With gas masks slung from their tiny dropped shoulders these pitiful mites stood bewildered and lost, as brothers and sisters’ clutched hands so as not to be parted. After all it had only been and hour or so since making their sorrowful farewells to mums and dads when leaving St. Pancras, and the terrible thought wrankled — no one knew for how long. Receiving a carrier bag containing food and sweets each sobbing family was billeted in various pats of the village to a household with a vacant room or rooms, and wherever possible brothers and sisters were kept together. As in all communities some of our village couples didn’t intend sharing their comfortable homes with these luckless children, so a phone call to kith and kin living in a blitzed area soon had spare rooms occupied — better the devil you know. The more compassionate villagers really took the evacuees to their hearts, and many lasting friendships began when these tots became family members in new homes. Nothing could have been more distressing for them than being brought from their own homes and parents, only to be dumped in a totally different environment but it was a problem they gradually mastered.
Billy and Walter came to live at the farm, two lads utterly bemused in their strange surroundings. Billy came from a more prosperous home, while Walter was a typical cockney, born and bred in the back streets of the East End. Although brought up in a hard, sometimes heartless area, Walter had a likeable personality, and Billy never missed an opportunity to tease him about his poorer upbringing. This baiting was often cleverly countered by Walter pointing out the fact that Billy wetted his bed regularly. These boys found life on the farm fascinating, for much of the daily routine was foreign to them, so Dad took them with him one teatime to pick up milk at Flowers Farm. When they arrived milking was still in progress, and the lads’ eyes bulged while watching a cowman finish the last one by hand. Loading the full churns into the back of the van Dad heard Walter whisper to Billy, “Did you see where th’ milk come from? Art o’ them bleedin’ ‘oles at th’ bottom.”
Our first mealtimes with the boys proved quite trying and frequently embarrassing, because although Billy managed quite well, Walter was lost when it came to using a knife and fork. In actual fact he never really had need of them, as he seemed to survive only on bread spread with brown sauce and there were times when he refused to eat anything else. At weekends their parents came down from London to see them, but no amount of pleading would entice Walter’s mum to sit at the table with us. So we set a table for her on the lawn under the pear tree, taking each course out to her, and she was in heaven just sitting there gazing at the birds and flowers, but the thing that intrigued her most was quiet it was everywhere. Walter’s mother was a person of simple tastes but her love for son was unbounding. One evening a friend of the boys came to visit them, and Dad had to walk back with him afterwards because he was terrified of the moon. This evacuee, who had never seen it before, couldn’t be convinced that the yellow orb was not a new ploy in Hitler’s aerial warfare. During the early war years we had various London boys to help on the milk rounds; they thought this great fun. One particular snowy winter’s morning, when the horses’ shoes needed roughing, two of them came over to the dairy for some help to do this ticklish job. On a previous occasion, when attempting to administer medication to a nervous horse, they had heard us talking about how it was easier to handle a difficult beast if one hoof was lifted from the ground. It transpired that while one held a hoof the other had tried to lift another to get the roughs in. Entering the stable we couldn’t help smiling at the horses pained expression, as it leaned against the wall with a boy holding up a front leg and the other tugging at a rear one. They were under the impression our ruse would work for roughing! After the war we didn’t see Billy again, but Walter, smartly dressed in his fireman’s uniform, called one Saturday to see Mum.
It was during the Battle of Britain, when R.A.F. pilots were valiantly shooting Luftwaffe forces from our skies, that the Germans sent over a strong squadron of bombers and fighter to attack the large Vauxhall factory at Luton, busy at that time churning out all sorts of war machines. The afternoon was clear and sunny with many aircraft overhead, but Mum, listening to the throbbing engines, decided our horses would be safer in their stables that out in the field. Just as she was leading the front one through a gate into the yard one of the others took a fright and charged on to the Common. Stabling the two calm ones safely she was about to grasp the escapee’s mane when the first bursts of gunfire stuttered from the cloudless sky, causing her to squeal and run for cover, leaving a contented horse to graze until things quietened down. I remember watching spellbound as fighters tried to get into attacking positions, or performed aerobatics to lose a Hun on their tail. Dad had gone to Flowers Farm for a pick-up, the same farm as our evacuees had watched the milking, as it stood on high ground overlooking the village, he had a grandstand view of the dog-fights high over Luton. He recalled how with the cowman, he had cheered madly on seeing a plane spinning earthwards, smoke pouring from its engine. In a few seconds the pilots parachute mushroomed above him after bailing out, but their cheers were cut short as they glimpsed red, white and blue circles on the doomed plane’s wings. Following a short scrap the Germans were routed with numerous casualties, and this was the first real action of the war brought close to the village.
With London being terribly bombed night after night, and the cold chill of war firmly embedded in everyone’s senses, a feeling of self-preservation was ever present. Low chicken runs, originally used on our farm for broody hens with young chicks, were carried down into the cellar and stood side by side, while feather beds on the wire tops completed our sleeping quarters. Staging round the walls had been used for storing apples each autumn, in deep straw, and the air always reeked of a tang of over ripe fruit. It was at about this time we noticed a small Ford car regularly parking under the horse chestnut tree outside our big barn.
Each evening without fail, as blackbirds and thrushes saluted the gathering dusk, this little car would arrive, and soon the husband and wife, with their daughter, curled up in eiderdowns to sleep away the dark hours until morning. Not long after first light, having stretched aching limbs, the family drove slowly away. It wasn’t long before Mum offered them a pot of tea when they arrived, so gradually we came to know the Baileys quite well. Every night, too terrified to stay, they left the blitz-torn road in London where their home was, to find comparative peace and safety in the Hertfordshire countryside, and with our farm so far from air raids they were openly amused at our precautions to sleep down the cellar. These charming people were soon tucked up snugly in our beds upstairs, instead of in cramped conditions in their car. One night Mum had the kettle boiling with tea in the pot all ready, but she wouldn’t make it until the Baileys arrived — they never did. We didn’t see them again, and having stuck a close relationship with then, we felt something dreadfully final had happened. The terrible thought of them being victims of a daylight raid that day never left us.
We didn’t escape the raids completely for one night a string of bombs straddled the village claiming one victim — a chicken. The noise didn’t even wake us, so Mum, unknowingly, went off in the early hours before it was light, carrying her usual two hand crates full of milk to serve South Common, a row of houses near the farm. One bomb had dropped about 300 yards from us, directly in front of these same cottages. Not until it started to get light did we realise hoe close the bombs had been, and it was obvious that Mum unaware of the recent earth removals, had walked around the edge of a gaping crater to put milk on the steps. A few small panes of glass were broken in a cottage window, but the bomb didn’t manage to wake up any of the cottagers either. The next bomb of the line fell in a heap of sand in a builder’s yard, on the other side of the Common.
One winter night I sat reading on front of a roaring fire, while Mum and dad made up a four for solo with an aunt and uncle from next door. I was totally engrossed in my story as the card players were trying to decided whether to ‘prop’ or ‘cop’, when a shattering explosion shook the farmhouse to its very foundations. Our grandfather clock swayed from the wall and returned with a thump. The bomb was plainly very close like the others, but we certainly heard this one. Collecting our senses Dad decided to go and check on the safety of the two sets of grandparents. Being closer, he went to his parents at North Common first, and gently tapping their front door he failed to get a reply. Finding it unlocked he quietly slipped through the front room to the kitchen at the back, where he found the old couple busily arguing because one had cheated at cards: they were playing patience. Sitting at a little card table they were in the middle of a double-handed game, but when dad had asked them if they heard anything, Gran gently laid down her cards.
“Yes we did hear a bit of a bang, but I’m cross because he keeps having a go when it’s not his turn” she complained. Noting Grandad’s mischievous smile my father could see there was nothing to worry about here, so took his leave. Quickly walking to East Common to see how Mum’s parents had fared, he found them very shaken and frightened, for the blast had shattered a small glass outhouse on the back of their cottage. A tot of brandy soon settled for the old people’s nerves, and seeing them made comfortable for the night, he walked down Chequers Lane at the back of a field below our home meadow. It wasn’t long before he could smell acrid cordite fumes, mingled with the dank odour of freshly turned earth, and in the beam of his torch was able to discern a large crater just over the hedge, a small field’s distance from the Gran Halsey’s cottage. The following morning it was easier to assess any damage as most of the hedge had disappeared, and close by, the trunks of two high elms were riddled with pieces of jagged shrapnel. Two holly trees that kept them company had completely gone: we never found a leaf. Where the blast had rushed along the lane, dead leaves and twigs had been swept into a colossal heap, complete with telephone wires and a dead rabbit. When the uncle and aunt went home they found all their windows intact, except one. A fragment of shrapnel, the size of your thumb nail, had bored a perfectly circular hole through one of the big panes, burned a hole in the curtain, and had finally come to rest on the mantelpiece.
As village lads joined up it was inevitable that some would not return, and such a futile loss of life caused several grief stricken homes, together with a few more names to put on the War Memorial. Two likeable young men in air crews, one of them with a promising academic career ahead of him failed to return from raids over Germany. A cousin of mine came home on embarkation leave during which he married his childhood sweetheart, and rejoined his unit knowing it would be a considerable length of time before he saw his new wife again. Luckily there was no way of knowing. Just a few days after leaving English shores a U-Boat’s torpedo ripped through the hull of his troopship, sinking it with no survivors.
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