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Keeping the Wheels Turning

by CSV Solent

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
John Allen
Location of story: 
Hungerford, Berkshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Ken on behalf of John Allen and
has been added to the site with his permission. John Allen fully understand the site’s
terms and conditions.

As a young teenager I started my working career in December 1939, as a junior clerk
with the old Great Western Railway, at Hungerford Station.

Like other areas of the countryside soon after the outbreak of war, rural Berkshire
began to fill up with troops and military installations. Land was requisitioned; hutments
for the soldiers appeared; large storage sheds were built, and the big houses of the
surrounding country estates taken over.

As I was learning my job, I saw how the railways were being organised to cope with
the immense burden of traffic the war would cause them to carry. From Hungerford in
the west, eastwards to Aldermaston, all the lines and stations had significant alterations
made to them to accommodate the extra goods and people they had to cope with.
Sidings were run into the military and naval warehouses; loop lines put in to limit train
delays; platforms lengthened to accept longer trains, etc.

Hungerford Station goods depot was always very busy because of its size and layout.
It was virtually unique as it could accommodate 125 wagons, and move these around,
perhaps to make up a train, without going out on to the main line. That way the traffic
on the line was not interrupted. The amount of traffic in those war years meant long
hours and the working day of nine hours in the early turn, from 7.00am to 4.00pm, was
often enough extended to 12 hours. Of course, the larger pay packet at the end of the
week was quite welcome. The late turn, from 4.00pm to 11.00pm, wasn’t so bad.

I worked in both goods office and booking office and was part of the effort that went
in to assembling trains for particular assignments: for example. The Regimental
Transport Officer (RTO) of a military unit would contact the Station Master on a
Monday, requesting a train to take troops on leave to the north of England the
following Friday. The S.M. would call the GWR area control office at Reading to have
coaches for, say, 400 hundred soldiers made available, and call another centre to
ensure a crew of driver, fireman and guard were provided. When those were fixed
tickets were the next job and in those days, long before computers or even mechanised
ticket printing were thought of, these had to be written out by hand. By my hand! With
my everyday work of booking passengers, answering ‘phoned enquires, daily
reconciliation of the cash take - to the nearest old penny, etc. still to be carried on,
sometimes the Thursday deadline would approach with many troop-tickets yet
unwritten. On those occasions I was given the help of an assistant - the Station Master!

In the middle years of the war I was transferred to the goods office at Thatcham
station. There was a very large Central Ordnance Depot at Thatcham. The thousands
of tons of military equipment held there required many rail wagons in and out of the
depot every day. The wagon numbers had to be recorded and that involved lots of
walking around the sidings and depot. This labour was tempered, perhaps, by being
able to use the Depot canteen, where I could buy my lunch at the reasonable price of
two shilling (10p). In the days of rationing that was a valuable concession.

Considering the quantity of military installations in the area, not to mention the
airfields at Membury, Ramsbury, Rudge, Welford and Greenham Common
surrounding Hungerford, we received little attention from raiding aircraft. The one
bombing incident that comes to mind, and which appeared at the time to have
Newbury Racecourse and its huge army storage for a target, turned out to have been a
church and a school which were hit.

Hungerford lies on the A338 road, from Oxford to Salisbury. The road was heavily
used by military traffic and one day a lorry carrying ammunition caught fire, creating
an effect like November 5th, several times over. I saw ammunition rounds exploding
everywhere. The local fire brigade had the job of tackling it and managed to bring it
under control.

Of course, Hungerford had an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organisation in place and I
was involved in that. Taking my turn in a rosta of duty in the control centre. This
centre was equipped with a, probably unique system, for the emergency call-out of the
wardens. It was devised by a local man, a Mr Percy, and a switch at the control
operated an electrical buzzer in the home of each warden. All quite advanced
technology for the time.

For quite a while, particularly in the early months of the war, invasion was a threat and
means to stop or slow an enemy army were everywhere; pillboxes, large concrete
blocks, and so-on. The wide High Street of Hungerford was full of these ‘tank-traps’
and the road, where it passed under the rail bridge, which with its abutments formed a
pinch-point, had a lot of large holes in it. Normally these were covered with steel
plates, but the plates could be removed quickly so steel posts could be inserted, to add
to the impediments.

Perhaps the most memorable day of the war for the town took place on Hungerford
Down. This is a large area of common land just up the slope from the High Street, not
far from the railway station. In 1944, it was expected that an invasion across the
channel would take place before long and it was obviously imminent when thousands
of American soldiers assembled there. The Americans had been gradually coming into
the area for some months and it was strange that, although the movement of troops
was kept secret, nevertheless whenever a train bringing the ‘Yanks’ to Hungerford
arrived, there was invariably a crowd of young girls at the station, waiting to greet
them! But on this day in 1944, the Common was strictly controlled, because General
Eisenhower had come to address his troops, before D-Day. Even so, some of the local
lads managed to hide in the bushes by the cricket ground, and saw and heard the great

On the edge of the Common, after the war, a large Sarsen stone was erected and 28
trees planted. This was the Town’s memorial to the 28 men of Hungerford who had
lost their lives while serving in that war.

One of the things of those wartime days that remains in my memory, is the atmosphere
of friendliness there was among people, with everyone out to help each other.


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