- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Dennis M R Small - Peggy Small
- Location of story:
- England, Normandy, Germany, Ceylon
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 January 2006
This story has been written onto the BBC People’s War site by CSV story gatherer Ian Hollins on behalf of Dennis Small. The story has been added to the site with his permission and
Dennis Small fully understands the terms and conditions of the site.
The 1939-1945 War — A Personal Experience (Part 1)
Some of the family have prompted me, to tell my 'Story' of my 'Wartime' experience, so I have decided to start at the very beginning; I was fourteen years and five months old living at home, and working for Hill, Lea and Hawkins Timber Importers and Merchants. My duties were to light the mess room and office fires, to help the sawyer, by pulling wood through the circular saw, also to clean the mess room and make tea for the yard men. Quite often I would take timber by handcart to customers on the docks. When I found time I would have to creosote fencing timber. My wages, six shillings a week, allowed me to give my mother five shillings, which I was very proud to do.
On Sunday September 3rd 1939 I heard the newspaper boy shouting that war had been declared. My father had often said that there was going to be a war, but the realization that it had now happened sent a feeling of foreboding through us all. I am sure, that I shared with everyone the fear of what was to come. Being gassed was, I think the worst fear of all, at that time. There was no possibility of my knowing what lay ahead, and at fourteen, I felt, that this war was a grown ups’ problem for a few weeks, and as nothing serious had happened, apart from our having to collect our Gas Mask's, Ration Book's, and Identity Card's, life settled down to routine.
My father, who had worked his own business prior to the 'War', mainly from sub contract work from petrol companies and now that petrol was rationed, he had to find another source of work, So he sought sub contract work from the 'Bristol Aeroplane Company', Only to be told, that under the direction of labour, he would be, together with everyone connected with his business directed to work at the 'Rodney Work's Factory'. My father, who had never liked me working in a timber yard, told me that, he had also arranged for me to work there to. And so, now at aged fifteen, I was thrust into the world of engineering, I was first put to work, in the inspection and despatch department, My job was to make up small bag's of nuts, bolts, and washers and other components, these were then tied to the main unit, mainly the radial exhaust unit, these were then despatched to wherever they were needed. I was later transferred to work with my brother Monty, this was my first chance to use my hands, to produce something, I soon realized that although not academically bright, I had very high practical abilities, and I soon found that I could do most of the jobs in the section. These jobs were mainly, hand beading, and riveting aluminium baffles. By the time I was sixteen, I could hold my own with the other tradesmen in the section. During my time at the 'Rodney Works: we often had air raid warnings: when we would all go to the shelters, but the first real scare that we had, was when we were all working at our benches, and no warning had sounded. Suddenly there were two huge explosions, some of the roof was shattered, and everyone was quickly down on the floor. A German plane flying low, had dropped a bomb on a Barrage Balloon, which was in a field across the road from the factory, and another in the road outside the factory, no one was badly hurt, except for the R.A.F Crew on the balloon. But if the second bomb had been fifty yards nearer, it would have come right through the roof into the factory, with terrible results. It was not long after this, that we had a really serious daylight raid, by it was said to be by about 40 aircraft, the siren had sounded, and everyone was making their way to the shelters. My brother had to shut off the electricity, which made us late getting to the shelters. I think I should explain that the shelters were built like a concrete tunnel, half way under ground, the top, which was above ground, was covered with earth and grassed over. There were steps down on one end, and a chimney type vent at the other end, the seats were down each side, so you would sit facing each other, We normally sat at the end with the vent, But as we had arrived late, some of the chaps had started to play cards, on a board across their knees, so rather than upset their game, and not thinking we would be there for very long, we stood in the centre, about six feet, from were we would normally have sat. We started to hear a loud rumbling noise, at first I thought it was a train passing, as the line was close to the shelters. But then we felt the ground start to shake, and the sound of bomb's whistling down, The next thing I remember was Monty pulling me up from under bodies, and seeing the sunlight shining through the dust, The end of the shelter had been blown away, It was hard to tell, who was alive, and who was dead. Rather than crawl over to many people, about six of us crawled to the air vent, and I remember being pulled up through the vent, and sitting on top of the shelter, still feeling dazed, I rolled down off the top of the shelter, the whole scene was of devastation and chaos, I had received some Injury to my head, and I was bandaged by a first aid person. Monty decided’ to get me to the main road, away from the factory, to do this, we had to cross over the aeroplane testing area, and past the factory, All the planes that were out on the tarmac were blown off their undercarriages, and the factory was on fire, I could hear oxygen cylinders exploding as we ran past. We got to the main gate, and there were people with cars waiting to help take the injured to hospital, I got into a car and was asked to wait for someone else to come out, but while I was waiting someone shouted to clear the area because of suspected unexploded bombs. Monty and I ran across the main road into a shelter in someone's garden. We heard some explosions and when we went back, the house where we had been waiting outside was a ruin, and the car was covered in debris. I waited for another car and eventually I got to hospital where I was treated for head wounds and sent home. My hair was compacted with cement dust and they said that it would take a long time to get it out. These were very anxious times for families, many of which had their whole family working at the factory, we were very lucky, for the fact, that six of us worked at the Rodney Works, and we all came out relatively unarmed, except for my head injury. I was later told that most of the people in my shelter had been killed. Two days later German bombers, having met with very little resistance, tried to finish the job but this time they were met by a squadron of Spitfires piloted by Polish pilots. They were seen to fly straight into the German planes and the Germans turned back with some being shot down over Somerset.
I was off from work for about three months during which time the factory was rebuilt. Some of the sections, mainly-bench work were transferred to the Fry’s Chocolate Factory at Keynsham. My father said that he thought that I should go with him to work at Keynsham. During the time I was off work Bristol and Avonmouth were being bombed at night. My Father thought that living so close to the docks was dangerous so he took us to a disused tunnel on the Portway, near the 'Clifton Suspension Bridge. We found that this was a very popular thing to do, the whole of the tunnel was like a camping site with tents pitched the whole length of the tunnel, and it proved to be a very safe place to be. On returning home one morning, we found the windows had been blown out, it was getting too close for comfort so my father decided it might be safer to move. We first stayed in a cottage in Almondsbury, but this was only a temporary stay. After a few weeks we moved to a house in Pretoria Road Patchway. During our stay at this house we had a scare with another low flying aircraft, which flew very low, over the house. We could see the pilot and the guns flashing. Bullets from the plane hit a bus in Filton. I found out years later that Peg, who I did not know at that time, was sheltering against the front garden wall. I worked with my father for several months until I was nearing seventeen. We were fitting boilers in the exhaust outlets. These were for heating the cockpits of aircraft. I thought it was time to start working on my own and when I talked to the foreman about it he said that he thought so too. I was given a much wider range of work but I feel I must mention something that happened at this time. I was quite amazed that this could happen in time of war. When we were being asked to work hard for the war effort all the jobs were timed so that bonus could be paid. By doing the job in less time the standard aimed at for bonus was to make one hundred per cent. I was given a Job to make and drill fifty gusset plates in a time of twenty-eight hours. I clocked on the job and completed it in nine hours. For this I was reported to the Union and asked to explain the reason that I did the job so quickly the inference being that I had fiddled the time or that I had made a mistake. To prove my case, I suggested, that I would do the same job again with a timekeeper checking me. This was agreed and much to the Unions dismay I completed the job in seven hours. The job time was then cut to fourteen hours. It was later realized that completing more jobs in a week, and making one hundred per cent bonus, the pay packets had gone up. So in the end I was off the hook as the saying goes. I found that I had a natural talent for the work and by the time I was seventeen and a half I was doing top tradesman’s work, which was known as grade “A” work.
At this time the R.A.F. were beginning to win the war in the air, and this brought about a growing feeling, that we could win this war. Air raids were also getting less and we were enjoying better night's sleep, I carried on working at Keynsham, and as I was nearing Eighteen, I received a letter telling me to report for a medical, which was the first step to being drafted into the Forces. I went for the medical and was passed A1, I also had to carry out an Intelligence test, and state my option, for which service I preferred, I chose to go into the Royal Marine's, I carried on working until a week before my birthday, and then, I received my “call up” papers, I was told to report to the 'Royal Marine Depot', at Lympstone, South Devon my brother Monty, also received his call up papers, the same time that I had mine, The Family was quite upset at this turn of event's, As they thought that we were in a reserved occupation, but Monty had been taking a lot of time off work, and he thought, that was the reason, for myself, I was too young to be exempt. I don’t remember being too concerned at going into the Royal Marine's, and when the day came to report, I caught a train to Exeter, and then a train to Lympstone Station, We were met by a marine, who loaded us into a lorry, and took us to the Marine Depot. For the next few day's, We were given the usual induction to the service, With words such as, you are here to become Royal Marine's, and as long as you obey the rules, you stand a good chance of enjoying your service life, but if you break the rules, you will definitely not enjoy your life here, We were formed into squads and each squad had a drill Instructor my squad instructor was a Colour Sergeant Crowther.
Colour Sergeant Crowther was very smart, and had been called back from retirement. His opening remarks were “I have the unthankful task, in the next three months, of turning you into Royal Marines, if any of you, don’t think that this is possible, step forward, and we will transfer you to a guards regiment”. During the next few days, Colour Sergeant Crowther: had us fixed up with our uniforms, rifle, and kit, as well as briefing us on the corps history, and honours, and making sure we all had a good haircut, For the next three months, he did his level best to keep his promise. He ran us, drilled us, put us over the assault course, and generally made our lives as hectic as he could. The emphasis was on fitness, with a daily dose of intensive physical training, in the gymnasium, mental alertness, was also a part of the training programme. I never found time to go out of the depot. After a day's training, we would spend most of the evening working on our kit, If our kit was not in perfect order the next day, we would be in trouble, It was also a fact, that if you did not come up to the required standard, you would be put back to a new Intake, I must admit, that after two month's, I was feeling very fit, and could take a nine mile forced march in my stride. This was just as well, because, we were getting lots of them. As part of the physical training programme, we all had to take part in inter squad boxing, I managed to survive seven bouts before I came across a semi-professional boxer, and a South paw, who knocked me out, as the boxing came to the finals, I was quite pleased I had been eliminated earlier. After he had been patched up, I thanked him for saving me the hiding. Next came the inter squad sports day. This was on a volunteer basis but because I had not volunteered for anything Sergeant Crowther, said “I am entering you for the one hundred yards, the quarter Mile, and the four-by-one mile relay, I was not very happy about this, as I had never run a race in my life. I really surprised myself, by winning the hundred yards, and then winning the quarter mile, and finally taking the baton in fifth place, and handing it over in second place. The last chap held that place making us second. Our squad won the games and the shield. I remember Sergeant Crowther, taking off his hat, throwing it on the ground, and jumping up and down on it with delight and excitement. I was pleased and surprised at my own effort, and when I saw the Sergeant, I thought, well, he is human after all. Our training nearing completion, we were now preparing for the big day, passing out, in front of the depot Commanding Officer R.M. The big day came, and we were all formed up on the parade ground, and with the band playing, and lots of pomp and ceremony. We were put through every drill that we had been taught. It was quite a memorable occasion, so much so, that seemed to bring out the very best in the squad, I must admit to feeling quite proud, and I am sure the rest of the squad, felt much the same. I will always remember the look on Sergeant Crowthers' face when it was announced that his squad had passed out with honours. After the Parade, he said, “you can all go and enjoy a few day's leave, and feel proud that you are how well on you’re away to becoming Royal marines”, “far different from the rabble I met three month's ago”. “In time you will look back at the last three month's and come to realise that they were the best time of your service life”. “I shall remember you as the 594 squad, who put a shield on the main depot shield. We had our first long weekend leave, and reported back to a camp on the moor, about three miles from Budleigh Salterton, The camp to say the least, was far different to Lympstone Depot, and I feel I should say something about it.
(Continued in part 2)
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