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15 October 2014
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My War Years: Evacuated Troops and the ATS

by Joyce Smith

Contributed by 
Joyce Smith
People in story: 
Joyce Smith
Location of story: 
Chesterfield and Colchester
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Contributed on: 
11 February 2004

During 1939 the cinema newsreels constantly showed the German army marching into one country after another although our Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had been to Germany to visit Hitler and had come back with the message “Peace in our time.”. Even at the age of sixteen I found it hard to believe.

When war was declared I was working as a canteen assistant at Bradbury Hall, Chesterfield. We supplied hot dinners for hundreds of mill girls.

The war seemed a long way off for the first few months but once bombing started it became real! We could see the glow of the fires in the sky from ten miles away on the two nights Sheffield was bombed heavily. We were lucky but a little village called Tupton on the outskirts of Chesterfield caught the last of the German bombs as the pilots were making their return journey to Germany. Several people were killed or injured in that village. One girl who lived in Tupton worked with us and she came to work the next day apologising for being one hour late and explaining that houses across the road to her home had been bombed. Her neighbours had been killed.

When we heard of the evacuation from Dunkirk we were told to expect two or three train loads of soldiers for their first meal. We waited up for two nights with no results. I can still smell bacon and beans to this day. Our employers, “Robinsons and Sons” had new mattresses delivered so that we could get a short rest after working all day and being up most of the night.

On the third day girls under eighteen were allowed to go home after the usual day’s work. At 2 a.m. my father answered the door to a loud knock. Mr Philip Robinson had come to collect me as some of the lads from Dunkirk were arriving and it was all hands on deck — even to the bosses themselves.

Most of those soldiers were more bothered about a wash than a meal. We had quite a few wash bowls and toilets at Bradbury Hall but there were no where near enough so we hunted out any type of bowl we could and lined one corridor with them along with soaps and towels.

As I poured tea into a tray full of cups I noticed one soldier was wearing an army greatcoat. I said, “It’s all right Duck. You can take your coat off now — it’s quite warm in here.” He never answered but as he passed through the swing doors opposite the counter I stood at I saw he was only wearing boots and the greatcoat. He had no other clothing.

A lot of the houses in Brampton, Chesterfield, had some of these soldiers billeted with them until further notice. Most of the soldiers were later posted on to the Middle East. I had a friend who married one of them

At the age of twenty in 1943 I received my calling up papers and I was drafted into the A.T.S. I took three weeks training in Northampton then I was posted to Colchester with five more girls who were all Londoners . We were attached to K Company and billeted in houses that people had left empty on English Road and Ireton Road. We worked at the Central Supply Depot. This depot linked with others at Romford and Thetford to supply all camps on the south east coast. Until near the end of the war the depot was situated down Hythe Quay.

Within three months I got my first stripe and I spent my twenty first birthday on N.C.O. duty, sitting in an empty waiting room waiting for girls with late passes to check in.

The rooms we occupied were very cold and I soon got chilblains very badly. A little old lady who kept a house front shop down Hythe Quay noticed me limping and was kind enough to dress my feet and ankles. I don’t know what she used but it worked.

During this time most of the men who worked in the depot were being posted until only C 3s (those not fully fit) remained. Within a year I was made up to Sergeant.

Apart from helping to unload railway wagons that ran into sidings against our depot I was working out the rations for each camp according to how many soldiers they held.

The day Colchester was bombed three of us went to catch the bus outside the railway goods depot only to find the road blocked. The bombs had missed the station but hit the line of shops opposite. The little old man who owned the cycle shop used to stand on his step and greet us with,” Good morning girls.” We never saw him again.

Colchester at this time was packed with troops- British, Canadian and American. During late October 1943 I was given my first leave and caught a train to Liverpool Street station the I took the underground to St Pancras. Just as I went through the platform barrier the sirens went and everyone started hurrying for the shelters. I decided to get on the train. I sat in the dark for three hours by myself until the all-clear siren went. The train arrived in Chesterfield at 2 am so I walked from the station to Whittington Moor feeling much safer than I would today.

That was my last leave for six months as we building up for D-Day although we did not know it at the time.

On the 6th June 1944 continuous drone of planes woke us up. Looking up into the sky there did not seem to be an inch of space between them.
Colchester had been full of soldiers and airmen but over night half of them had gone and life seemed to have left the place. D Day had started.

Churchill predicted blood, sweat and tears but he always gave us hope. This time the forces were not beaten.

At the end of the war I met and married Sergeant H. Laxen on his return from four years in Burma. We had forty two happy years together but that’s another story.

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Message 1 - My War Years

Posted on: 11 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

I very much enjoyed your contribution, Joyce. It is full of fine, well remembered, detail.

Kind regards,


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