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War-time Recollections 1939-48

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Mike Scott Archer
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16 November 2005

The story has been submitted on the Peoples’ War by Vicki Workman of Powys County Council Library and Archives, on the behalf of Mike Scott Archer and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the terms and conditions.

War-time Recollections 1939-48
Mike Scott Archer

We were living in Llangollen in the Dee valley North Wales, I was 15 and about to start my second year of Higher School Certificate: as ‘A levels were then called, when war was declared. My first memory was a frantic search for materials to cover the windows- ‘blackout’- to be put in place at dusk each day so that the enemy bombers had no lighted towns to guide them or to bomb. My father had three years previously designed a house with lots of windows, large ones! Lovely to live in, until he had to design and make demountable blackouts and, subsequently, keep the house warm enough during some very cold winters when fuel was rationed. Double-glazing was not then an option! Fortunately we were both keen handymen and mother was kept hard at work supplying us with thick black material to nail onto frames we make to fit each window.

The autumn of 1939 was the ‘phony war’ period: little was happening in Western Europe while Russia was battling with Finland plus Germany in the East. At school we had started a radio society, built a short wave radio and with half-wave length aerial on the roof experimented with picking up distant European transmitters for war news. I had an uneventful trip to Jesus College, Oxford to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for a scholarship in December. January was exceptionally cold- the water main to our group of houses froze- to keep our central heating going we carried water from the canal some 200m. and up the equivalent of six flights to the tank in the roof.

By the summer of 1940 Liverpool, our nearest major city, was being bombed. One night bombs jettisoned on moorland north of Llangollen setting miles of heather on fire, the smoke enveloped the town and for some successive night the Germans continued to bomb the burning moorland- the only damage was one remote farmstead plus, sadly, its occupants destroyed. My maths teacher who lived on high ground at Acrefair, four miles away, told of seeing Liverpool’s fires burning each night.

Evacuees to the area included a Liverpool secondary girls school who for a term shared our buildings — they had morning shifts, we had afternoon! At home we had a soldier’s young wife and two tiny children occupying a flat we converted from our basement- about Easter she had tragic news of her husband’s death in Greece during fighting. She promptly returned to her home in a very poor part of Liverpool to be near her parents.

Following the spring 1940 invasion of the low countries and France the Local Defence Volunteers (later Home Guard) was set up. My father was the major in command locally. All available men over 16 joined up. I remember exercises in the hills and a grenade practice in a quarry when one nervous recruit dropped his live grenade in the throwing trench. Fortunately a first World War veteran, ‘John Roberts MM’ was present and quick as a flash threw it out just before it exploded. Another time, I was one of five with instructions to try to penetrate the Home Guard defences of the town — I got within 100m. of my target before being spotted!

When the Air Training Corps was set up I joined, later as a flight Sgt, I was given the chance to fly in the co-pilot’s seat of a Tiger Moth from Wrexham up the Dee Valley to Bala and back. Ostensibly the trip was to give the ground based Royal Observer Corps practice in spotting and identifying aircraft. For me it was a superb opportunity to see from above the hills I had walked so much.

Sport and physical fitness were not neglected in the war years — Morning P.T. was done to instructions over the radio — sometimes too enthusiastically as when I punched the ceiling light shade above my head in the lounge and was showered in expensive glass fragments! I was chosen to represent the Denbighshire ATC at an all Wales sports in Swansea. It was a fascinating journey by train via Shrewsbury and the central Wales route through Llanwrtyd and Llanelly — I was delighted to win my 880 yds race.

Holiday jobs as a student varied. First as a milk lady’s assistant at 12/6d a week meant delivering both bottled milk and pints drawn from the churn on the back of the van. One day we ran out of full pint bottles so my resourceful boss said ‘let’s go to Emmy’s on the Fron, today she may well have a full tub of suds from doing the washing’. Sure enough she did so we washed all the used bottles already collected in the tub, rinsed them, and topped them up from the churn. As far as I know all our later customers survived! This was a wonderful experience as almost all the workers were refuges from Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary, under the leadership of a Norwegian, Charlie Prakel, who had settled in Wales. My first girl friend was a Czech from Prague whose banker parents had escaped to Haifa, and whom I was to meet in the city five years later at her wedding (not to me). A Hungarian in the group always wore a very thick jersey — when it got really hot he would strip to the waist- that was when we discovered it was not just one jersey but six: he had lost so many possessions on his escape route, that now he retained everything on his person.

Many businesses in London were blitzed in 1940. One shop was that of a very famous stamp dealer, Charles Nissen — who had the honour of being Philatelic Adviser to King George V. He came to ‘Branas’, Abbey Road, Llangollen with his son Harry, who joined the Home Guard. Like most boys I collected stamps and it was not long before I got an invitation to visit Branas and see some of the great British stamp rarities (aficionados will recognise plate 77 and 1/ overprint Board of Education). My other fairly regular holiday job was covering for postmen on their week’s holiday. When they had a letter from aboard I am ashamed to say I would ask the household if I could have the envelope. This lead to an event which brought the tragedy of war home to me — some months after the fall of Singapore, I had a letter with Straits Settlements stamps to deliver — I handed it to the maid who answered the door — as she passed it to the lady I heard a howl of anguish: it was from her husband, written before his death in action, and of which she had heard many weeks earlier through official sources.

In 1942 I gained a State Scholarship to read maths at Downing College, Cambridge. This was an eventful year: the tragedy of Pearl Harbour followed by the wonderful achievements of Montgomery at El Alemain. Needless to say the spirits of the students rose and fell in tune with the events. The college had three story blocks with four double rooms on each floor served by one bathroom, so each bedroom had its pair of chamber pots. The morning after Montgomery’s success had become known we arose to see the whole length of the roof of one wing adorned with a line of chamber pots and a large board reading ‘THE NIGHT WE LICKED THE JERRIES’.

My results in May 1943 were not good enough to stay on in University and , being short-sighted, RAF aircrew was not an option, so I did a radio course and was to spend the next two years in a radio factory in Croydon, testing Army and RAF radios prior to issue. This was intensive work, long hours 7.30am to 7.00pm but only to 5.30pm on Fridays and to 12.30noon on Saturdays. In addition we all did Home Guard duties at weekends. Croydon still suffered minor air raids in the winter of 1943-4 but the flying bombs began and we were at the heart of the target area — or so it seemed. At least you could see one coming and could decide whether you could ignore it or drive for cover. One story, which may be apocryphal, tells of a big funeral in the area. The funeral director was a very rotund figure; I believe his name was Ebbutt, and as the coffin was loaded into the hearse a flying bomb approached, obviously heading their way. Everyone dived for cover, the bomb struck a hundred yards away, and when the dust settled everyone reassembled except Ebbutt himself. It was sometime before they discovered that he had dived under his own hearse and could not extricate himself!

VE day was, of course, memorable: everyone was in high spirits, we had all gone up to town as it was a public holiday. I subsequently discovered, on comparing notes, that my wife had to be had been outside Buckingham Palace at the same time as me, and, later in the summer we had been in the same queue for the first night of the Proms. However the end of the war meant a queue of ex-servicemen and women rightly having priority to return to or enter University. I decided that autumn to
Volunteer for RAF and after basic training found myself en route to Cairo from where I went north to Haifa and No. 6 Squadron at RAF Ramat David as one of three newly posted clerks in the orderly room. By typing faster than the other two I rapidly achieved the great height of Cpl i/c! The squadron moved to Ein Shemer in central Palestine and then late in 1946 to Cyprus. One day in 1497 I was shocked to receive a telegram from an old school friend, then in the Navy, ‘Sorry to hear your father died’. My CO said wait — if you get news from home about serious illness I will send you on compassionate leave — if the ‘death’ is official you won’t get leave. I duly got the message about illness, his Flt Lt flew me to Cairo and from there I was flown via Tripoli, Malta and Marseilles to London and home. A month later I returned by sea to Cyprus and got the news that I was transformed to be a Sgt, Education Branch at RAF Aqir where I opened the first and only science laboratory for pre-release training of servicemen in the Middle East. I also ran for the RAF against the Palestine Police with success in the 800 yds — and have managed to keep ahead of the Police ever since.

Moving up to Jerusalem in Dec. 1947 I found myself on guard duty on the night the terrorists blew up the Palestine Post Newspaper Offices. In January I had a week’s leave in which I visited Petra — a wonderful experience, travelling on desert tracks overnight in an Arab lorry from Amman to Ma’an then walking the 20 miles to Petra and exploring for 4 days. Arriving back at RAF Amman I was told that I was recalled to Jerusalem as we were leaving Palestine sooner than anticipated and son, finally, to demobilisation and back to Wales.

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