- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Harold Toms
- Location of story:
- Wareham, Dorset
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 August 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Caroline Toms from CSV and has been added to the website on behalf of Harold (Bill) Toms with his permission and they fully understand the site's terms and conditions.
I was just 13 and a few days when I listened to Chamberlain on the radio telling us that unless we heard from Hitler by 11 am we would be at war with Germany. Well, we never heard from Hitler but we did hear the local air raid siren. We all looked at one another and wondered what we should do. In the event we did nothing.
In 1939 I had won a scholarship to a Junior Technical College in Weymouth. In the event my joining the school was delayed as workmen were busy removing any equipment that might be of use to the War effort. As it was a brand new school everything in the Metal working department disappeared as did all the young teachers so that when we did eventually start we were faced with old men and very little equipment. It was not long before we were required to take a break from school as it was to be used as a refugee centre for those people who had escaped from the Channel Islands. Once they had been dispersed it was back to school again, but only for a short while as the school was then used as a dispersal point for evacuees from London.
Weymouth was placed on an extreme war footing. The beaches were closed to the general public and were patrolled by soldiers of the Welsh Regiment dressed in bleached denim uniforms. The uniforms were intended to blend with the sand on the beach and , so far as I can make out, the soldiers were to be dug in on the beach to resist any attempt to invade the country. The town was a target for enemy aircraft and quite a lot of damage was done when a landmine was dropped on the shopping centre. As boys of 13 and 14 we used to wander around in the lunch hour, particularly around the harbour and it was there that some friends and myself were almost killed. We wandering alongside the harbour when we heard an enemy aircraft coming in very low machine gunning as it went. We dived under a railway truck and could hear the machine gun bullets ricochet off the truck under which were crouched.
Wareham, where I lived , was close to the Royal Naval Cordite factory at Holton Heath. In order to protect the factory decoy sites were set up in remote heath land . These were intended to divert enemy bomb raids away from the actual factory and comprised a series of oil tanks, which could be lit to simulate fire . My father was one of the armed guards who operated the site. Unfortunately no one told the local fire brigade about the decoy sites and on the one occasion that it had to be used the fire brigade turned up to put out the fires, which had been deliberately set. My father and his mate had to threaten to shoot the fireman if they attempted to enter the site.
When I left school in 1941 I obtained an apprenticeship as an electrician. The man I worked with was called Reg and we used to travel around in his MG. We had quite a large area to cover , part of which could only be accessed by a road running across Egdon Heath. Unfortunately the tank regiment whose headquarters were at Bovington used the road and the heath itself for training. The tanks going to and from their training grounds caused huge ruts in the road so that it was not uncommon for the low slung MG to get stuck on the ridge in the middle of the ruts. We also had sight of very peculiar types of tanks such as the Flail tank, which in theory was to be used to explode landmines.
At Worth Matravers , near to Swanage, some very large towers had been erected and there were a lot of scientists floating around in the area. This, in fact was one of the first Radiolocation sites, which helped to give early warning of enemy aircraft approaching. We call it Radar nowadays. The site was always being attacked and eventually the scientists disappeared to Malvern where to this day they still have the headquarters.
Life continued for the family, food was rationed of course, as was clothes, milk, sweets etc. It did not mean too much to me for we were never very well off for money anyway. We kept a few chickens in the garden and dad had his allotment on which he grew plenty of vegetables. Meat was hard to come by, but we got by. Blackout was rigidly applied, God help you if you showed a chink of light as the warden would be hammering on the door to tell you put out the light. Nightly we heard the roar of aircraft passing overhead on their way to bomb Bristol, the Ack Ack guns would be firing, the searchlights looking for the aircraft, but I cannot recall any of the bombers being shot down in our area.
My mum was drafted in as a fire warden, given a hard hat, shown how to deal with incendiary bombs etc. There were a couple of times when incendiary bombs were dropped but they did little damage. There was also a stick of bombs dropped by an aircraft during the day. We surmised that it was probably an aircraft that had not found its original target, for there was little in Wareham that could be considered a sensible target. The bombs destroyed the local gasometer and killed a couple of people.
We, of course, heard the news of Dunkirk on the radio and again, if I remember rightly, we were turfed out of our school at Weymouth to make room for the troops. Morale was high, I can never recall anyone having any doubts about our winning the war, we always believed we would win in the long run. We were, of course, aware of the possibility of invasion. The local home guard had been set up and the manager of the local electricity company had become the captain in charge. He was; in all honesty, just like Mainwairing in Dads Army, full of his own importance, wearing his uniform any time that he could.
The warning of an invasion occurring was the ringing of church bells. I think it was in 1940 that my father came into my bedroom to wake me up. There was a bell ringing so we got dressed and went out to investigate. The bell was not a church bell but one at an old alms house which was just down the road from us. When we got there a load of people were milling around with no idea as to what to do and no idea on whose authority the bell had been rung. After a couple hours dad and I decided to go back and catch up on our sleep. To this day I have never found out why the bell was rung.
The summer of 1940 was glorious. In the September of that year we witnessed the dog fights between the RAF and the German fighters .It was one of those times when everyone stood at the door watching with bated breath the fights that were taking place. Every aircraft that was shot down, and there were quite a lot, was assumed to be German and was cheered as it disappeared in a cloud of smoke. In those days I was required to attend chapel and my job was to pump the organ. The chapel was always full and there was a sort of sing song of well known hymns at the end of the normal service. This meant quite a lot for me , pumping away to keep the organ going.
There was an evacuation of the Arne peninsula, land that was adjacent to the sea, stretching from Wareham through to Swanage. The area was considerable and a lot of farmers were required to leave their land. The area was used for live battle practice and in fact it was some time after the war had finished that it was considered safe for people to walk across it, as it had been sown with land mines etc. The tank gunnery range at Lulworth was extended so that several small villages such as Tyneham had to be evacuated. Tyneham still has restricted access.
During 1940 the news was pretty depressing, defeats in Norway, France, North Africa, Malta under siege; but our faith never wavered. Churchill’s speeches were always welcomed and helped to keep morale high. Bombing of London, Exeter, Coventry, Bath, Bristol, were accepted as one of the burdens we had to bear toward final victory.
In 1942 we heard with disbelief of the Japanese declaring war on USA. This was followed by even more bad news of the Prince of Wales and other battleships being sunk, Singapore being taken, and so on. The States were now involved in the war in Europe, Germany having also declared war on them. Initially this news did not have a great impact but as time went by we began to see Yankee soldiers appearing on our streets. It was quite funny to see them running like hell for an air raid shelter every time that the siren went, we were very blasé about air raid warnings, unless we could actually see or hear an aircraft we would ignore the warning.
By 1944 the Americans were there in force. In every country lane lines of army transport existed under camouflage nets: Dday was approaching. Dorset was under martial law. Almost overnight the troops disappeared, it must have been one of the greatest logistical exercises ever. I believe that most of the troops embarked at Portand , bound for Omaha and Utah beaches and I often wonder to this day how many of those that I saw in the country lanes survived. We knew that Dday was imminent and when it happened, we saw the aircraft, and the gliders, which had been based at Tarrant Rushton, flying overhead on their way to France.
Late in 1944 I received my calling up papers. I had elected to join the Royal Navy in which I was to serve for three and a half years. I can never understand WHY I joined the Navy. I had been an active member of the ATC for a number of years, achieving the dizzy heights of corporal. I knew all about aircraft, could recognise both German and British aircraft, had been on a couple of flights in an Airspeed Oxford, had been on visits to RAF airfields , so logic would have dictated that I should have joined the RAF. But there I was in my matloes uniform, designated Wireman(L) and given the number PMX 717904. I had my kitbag and service gas mask , was shown how to sling my hammock, was forced with others to row a whaler around Portsmouth harbour, did my training at HMS Vernon and was one of a mob forced to march for King George V1th. I hated every bloody moment of it. I was never amenable to discipline and the nonsense that I had to endure made me spit. After my training I was shipped off to Ceylon in preparation for the invasion of Singapore, which of course never happened. After many trials, I finally left the Navy in May 1948 to return to civvy street and the beginning of my real life.
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