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15 October 2014
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I came home for the Selkirk Common Riding

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People in story: 
Jack Harper
Location of story: 
Sekirk and London
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Contributed on: 
18 October 2005

Jack Harper, born 7th July 1923 in Selkirk

I remember very clearly the day that War broke out — it was a Sunday but there had been quite a commotion in the town for over a week previous to that. Hitler invaded Poland and the TA had actually been mobilised, although the local chaps still lived at home, they had been in uniform all day. It was announced on this particular day Sunday, the 3rd day of September, that the Prime Minister would talk on the wireless at 11 o’clock. We were all ready for the kirk, and the Minister arrived at the door and he asked my father (we lived just a couple of doors up from the Church), he asked if my father might stay behind to listen to what the Prime Minister had to say. So, Mother and I went off to the Kirk and the Minister started the service. We sung the first hymn, and after that the beadle, a Mr. Steedman — his nickname was 'flannel feet' — he appeared and mounted the steps up to the pulpit with a piece of paper and of course Mother and I knew what it was. My father had written out word for word what the PM had said, and after the Minister read it out he called for prayer and during the prayer the air raid siren went off, and it was very loud because it was on the County Building just across the road. The Minister carried on and finished the prayer, immediately on which a Mr. Gibson arose and left, but he was the head of the Civil Defence or the ARP. I remember going out, and it was a glorious day, lovely sunshine, and we went up to the County Buildings and Smith the Builder had a squad there, building sandbags up round the Police Office window. That all remains very vivid in my memory.

I was attached to the auxiliary fire service — the man in charge of that was Stewart Roberts and he had asked myself and m y pal George Anderson if we would act as telephone operators. We were still sixteen and still at the school, so we got roped into that job. The biggest event during that period was the air raid attack on Clydebank when the local siren went just after darkness and we mustered along there and it was a very short period before the drone of the German planes was heard overhead, and they flew directly over Selkirk. The firemen were all dressed up with their gas masks ready, with full regalia on, and this went on and on. It lasted all night, and by four o’clock in the morning we were getting quite blasé, and some of the firemen went along to the bake house to get some rolls or pies, because all the bakeries were functioning at that time — they started about two o’clock in the morning, and everything in the shop was fresh. So, the aircraft droned away and it lasted almost to daylight before it faded away. The following night, something similar happened, but it didn’t last nearly as long, and we were home by about three o’clock in the morning I think. Clydebank suffered tremendously of course, Clydebank was the industrial area of Glasgow.

When I left the school I decided to join the Home Guard, and I did that and I enjoyed my time there. I told the Fire Brigade that I was doing that and I expect that they got somebody else to do my job, but the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) was changed to the National Fire Service and it was raised to the status of the fourth service to the Crown, and everybody got numbers and my name was still on the books and I got an official number and I had to go back, but I went back as a fireman. I must admit I never attended a fire, but I did go to practices and we manned the old fire engine with the ladder along the top, and the old brass bell. I remember ringing the brass bell. When I was in the fire service there was the old fire engine and that was the main one but there were three trailer pumps and one of them was towed by Stewart Roberts’s own car, which was a Ford V8 Pilot, and the other ones were towed by local tradesmen’s lorries, and they all went out and practised but none of them were ever used in earnest, at least not because of the War.

In the Home Guard we had a lot of exercises and even church parades. We did some exercises along with troops that were stationed locally. I remember one instance, we had to advance under cover of machine guns, as it was a machine gun regiment stationed locally. It was the old water cooled guns, Vickers, that stood on a tripod and here, it happened, we were aware of things fluttering in the grass, and it transpired it was faulty ammunition they were using and the bullets were falling round about us so the exercise was cancelled.

I remember one chap in particular, Tom Buckham, he was a bit of a character, we were all advancing with fixed bayonets, and there was a rabbit crossing his path so he went after it with the bayonet. The other exercise I remember doing, it was with the Royal Artillery, and we were to attack a small wood up near Howden way, and as we went up, the artillery fired smoke shells, which formed a smoke screen in front of us. We were happily on through the smoke, and when we were little more than fifty yards from the wood they started pounding the wood with high explosive shells and of course the blast all went away from us, and it was to demonstrate how artillery cover worked. Fortunately that one worked all right!

I made my name as a marksman in the Home Guard — and when I joined the Navy I actually won a marksman’s badge in that as well. It was the fleet air arm.

I was serving my apprenticeship as an engineer after I left school, and I was free from call up until the age of 20. So it wasn’t until 1943 that I got called up to the navy, and I got called up as an air mechanic but after our preliminary course I got qualified, and got onto a course to qualify as an air fitter, which I passed. After that I went to an RAF station to learn the electrics, and the electrical installations. While I was at Henlow, the RAF station, where incidentally, I met some of the Selkirk chaps who were serving there too, I was on Sentry duty on night and I took a most severe pain in my stomach, and I spent the next five days trying to cure it with soda mints, but it transpired I had very acute appendicitis, so I spent the next four weeks in hospital and then I was in a convalescent home for a while. While I was there that was when D Day happened. There was a great build up in the Fleet Air Arm, it was caused by the Japanese War , the Pacific War, and the Fleet Air Arm was obviously going to be one of the principal elements of it. There was a colossal build up — for air fitters and air mechanics along they were taking in 120 a week! When Normandy happened, it was well expected because we’d seen planes with gliders in tow pass over daily doing the exercises. When I was discharged on the Wednesday (from the convalescent home) — in the Common Riding Week in fact — with four days sick leave, so I was on the train the next day and I arrived home on the morning of the Common Riding, much to the pleasure of my one and only pal that was still left in the town. So, I spent the Common Riding, my sick leave celebrating! I was just about ready for hospital again by the time I went down!

It was immediately on the back of D Day, and at long last there was prospects of the War finishing, and it was really a tremendously good Common Riding. Everybody was in great spirits, and there were one or two characters there, right Common Riding enthusiasts like the late Kenny Henderson, who had been invalided out of the Army, and one or two others that were really full of the Common Riding and it was one of the most memorable Common Ridings of my life, really, although there’s never been a dull one!

Everything was very austere of course, all the food was rationed but we were never hungry. We always got plenty to eat, plenty food, and the country was blacked out at night after dark. It’s remarkable how dark it can get especially when there’s no moon. It was so different from the first war, because then all the men were in France and there were very few menfolk left in Britain but in the Second World War the country was heaving with troops — we had the Poles and the French and the Americans, the Canadians…there would be more troops in Selkirk than there were civillians I would guess. Of course they had to be entertained, and there were dances practically every night and the social life was really quite high. The country was teaming with servicemen — other places that I’ve been with the navy, you went into a bar and it was all servicemen. Of course the girls all enjoyed the dancing.

The Welsh Fusiliers were stationed in Selkirk, they were here for quite considerable time, and some of them married Selkirk girls, and some of them are still here. When they left Selkirk, I don’t know where they went immediately, but eventually they were shipped to Madagascar, and there was a Selkirk chap, one of the ship’s engineers and he told me when he was home once, he said ‘I heard an awful lot o’ stories about Selkirk girls!’, but to give him his due he never divulged any of them!

When I eventually qualified, I was sent up to Ross-shire and I spent most of my time there, but I remember VE day very well because the word came through fairly late at night and everybody gathered down in the one place, officers and ratings alike, and we had a regular do going in there! They went round the camp taking down all the black outs and burned them in a bonfire, and they broke into the NAAFI and brought the piano down and we had a grand sing song. The next day they called a morning parade - we didn’t normally have them except on a Sunday, but we had them the day after VE day and the Captain reminded us that Fearn would still be our home for the foreseeable future. Then, when VJ Day came, we could hardly believe it because we didn’t know anything about the atom bomb or anything like that — it was a bolt out of the blue. And of course all the build up of the Fleet Air Arm was finished — we were all demobbed and given a number. I was number 54 or something like that, which was quite a high number because I didn’t join until ’43, so big was the fleet air arm at that time after the big build up, that I was being demobbed along with army boys with lower numbers. I finished up I served about 3 years — and never saw an angry man!

But I was very nearly blown up by a buzz bomb in London — I was visiting my Aunt actually. You could hear them coming along — the buzz bomb is a very distinctive sound, and the sound suddenly stopped, and that was the signal that it was coming down. I went to the window, I wondered if I could see it land, but I couldn’t see it, I could only hear it. It was like a train approaching, this whizzing and it was a great bang and the whole house shook and the glass fell out the windows and you couldn’t see anything for smoke. It was a bit of a shock - I had to comfort my Aunt a bit, obviously she was on in years. When I went out, when I got the tube back to the railway station, I went round the corner and I came on this mansion house that had been demolished completely — it was flat — it had been this bomb, the V1 it was called later but they called then buzz bombs to begin with. Later, after the War I went back up to visit my Aunt there and there were six pre-fabs on the site where that house had been.

The course that I did to transfer from air mechanic to air fitter, that was held in London and it was actually in Fulham Gasworks, and our quarters were on the fourth floor up on the top of the building. Normally a ship’s crew was divided into watches, and there was always one duty watch so there was always half the company on board when the other half were free to go on leave. Down there, there were 16 watches and that was purely so that they could clear the building in case a bomb hit it. It was a time when air raids on London had intensified again — they called it the little blitz, years after the first blitz. The raids didn’t happen nightly, but they happened very often, in early 1944. I spent Christmas there actually through with my Aunt, I attended a Christmas party that was run by another Selkirk family that was there — there were a lot of Selkirk folk in London.

There was another family I visited, and they lived in a flat in London. And we were sitting out on the balcony watching this air raid, and there was a German plane caught by the search lights. The two search lights crossed, they both caught it, but it very quickly eluded them, it dropped a flare, and the search lights concentrated on the flare, but the lights had been on it long enough for the sonar equipment to get onto it and they just switched the search lights off and they started firing at it. There was shells bursting all round about it and that’s one air raid that I remember, watching as it was from a grandstand.

Another one in London, the Duke of Buccleuch had a house down by the Wellington Arch which is by Hyde Park Gate, and he opened that as a hostel for servicemen in London and I stayed there one or twice. One night a couple of us had been around the corner into Knightsbridge and we were having a drink in a pub there, and there was suddenly the most tremendous whoosh, and we thought the house was coming down but it was, there was a battery of rockets in Hyde Park which was just across the road, and this was then launching the rockets, six at a time. The din it made was something tremendous.

At the end of the War, by then I was in the Royal Navy, and it was after the war had finished. This day we were all sitting in the mess listening to the news, and it was announced that the government had written off all the debts that were owing them by the countries in Europe, and we were rather dumbfounded because we were well aware of the debts we owed to America, first through the ‘cash and carry ‘policy and latterly it was ‘lease and lend’, and we were in debt up to the neck there. We were stunned into silence for eight or ten seconds. A chap who came from Kent said, somehow it makes you proud to be British, and the ice melted, and we all agreed with him. During the War we were all British.

(collected by SBC Museums)

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