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A Child's War in Lincolnshire: Paratroopers and POW's

by vincent d'olier

Contributed by 
vincent d'olier
Location of story: 
Swinstead, Lincolnshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A2624618
Contributed on: 
11 May 2004

At my father's insistence the family left our home in Norbury, South London, in August just before the outbreak of war. War was seen as inevitable and our departure was hastened by the possibility of aerial devastation that my father had early experience of in WW1 when a Zeppelin bombed his home in nearby Norbury Crescent.

The destination was my aunt's farm at Swinstead, near Stamford, where I was born soon afterwards. As a tenant to the Earl of Ancaster my aunt managed the farm with her son, Edgar, and live-in farmworker Jack. Her husband had died many years earlier leaving her the difficult job of bringing up two children and working the farm. Another four were now to join her. Her daughter Hilda had left home to become a teacher but visited often enough to marry Alec, a Quartermaster Sergeant in the 1st Airborne division garrisoned nearby in the Earl's ancestral home, Grimsthorpe Castle. This tale is centred on that prestigious establishment.

In 1942 my brother, sister and mother, returned to London to attend school and to join my father who worked in the City and served in the ARP. I stayed with my aunt only returning home occasionally. In the absence of family I teamed up with Jack's niece, Margaret and we became inseparable friends roaming the fields and hedgerows all day and everyday returning only for meals.

Superficially the village was a quiet backwater, but much happened. British parachute regiments and American bomber bases nearby ensured a constant flow of troops through the village, meeting, often violently, in the village hall for the Saturday night dances.
Added to this were the Italian POW's, dressed in their distinctive brown uniforms with large yellow and green diamonds sewn onto their jacket and trousers. After Italy surrendered in 1943 they lived and worked on the farms.

One POW, named Sisto Podrecca though known to all as George the Eyetie, used to take Margaret and me and other village kids for walks on his day off. On one particular occasion he took about six of us down to Grimsthorpe Park lake. We clambered into a rowing boat moored in a rickety shed, which George then pushed across the lake by swimming behind the boat. I seem to remember every ripple, every lilypad and imagined sightings of pike, those fearsome creatures which were said to inhabit the lake. No-one seemed concerned that George had been an enemy, that he took their children unsupervised on long walks or that the Castle was a military establishment, the village trusted him completely.
George was loved by all. Although he never returned to the village after the war he is remembered with affection by the older inhabitants to this day.

Around this time, in the summer of '44 just before the Arnhem landing in Holland, much the same group of kids aged between 4 and 10 plus my brother and sister, who had returned to the farm because of the Doodlebug assault on London, went on one of their many strolls to the lake. While walking through a wood bordering the Castle, to my astonishment we met Alec, my cousin's soldier husband, coming the other way. My young mind had not grasped the fact that he was stationed nearby in the Castle. He lead us down a track to a clearing in the middle of which was a glider, I think called a Hamilcar. These were towed behind DC3 Dakotas and landed troops and equipment behind enemy lines. To be shown inside real military hardware was a boy's dream come true. In retrospect the glider was probably used for training for Arnhem in which Alec took part in September '44. He was reported missing, but badly wounded, managed to swim to safety across the Rhine, eventually returning home to see his son for the first time, born one month after the action started.

For me the war was a period of idyllic happiness spent in the warmth and harmony of this South Lincolnshire farming community but for the adults who preserved this idyll it must have been a time of uncertainty and hardship.

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