- Contributed by
- Conal O'Donnell
- People in story:
- Mabel ("Teddy")Vaughan Wheeler,Capt Leonard Frank Wheeler,Lilley Wheeler,Peggy Wheeler
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 24 November 2005
"Teddy" Wheeler outside the schoolhouse Cranfield.The house was the local Home Guard HQ.Under the stairs Bren guns,grenades and rifles were stored."If we're hit we'll all go up"complained mother Lilley."Yes" replied father laconically.
I am Mabel Vaughan O'Donnell nee Wheeler.This account has been handwritten by me and transcribed by my son Conal O'Donnell.I didn't like my first name and adopted "Teddy" instead!
In 1939 we had our last summer holiday in Portsmouth.We saw a German navy boat anchored there and German sailors strolling about in pairs.Then Poland was invaded-the boat left in a hurry.The harbour boom was put in place and as tension mounted we set off for our home in Cranfield ,Bedfordshire.
Listening to the wireless we heard Mr Chamberlain announce " we are now at war with Germany"I looked at my father and tears were rolling down his face.I was astonished .I had never seen him cry before.Men didn't cry.
He said:- "Those poor boys , they will have to go through it all over again".
Later he left for the orchard where he dug up a tin box which he had buried under an apple tree.In it was a well wrapped up Webley revolver he had last used in the 1914-18 war as a Captain in the 24th Btn the London Regiment (The Queens)He was wounded in the leg at at the Battle of Loos in 1915 and badly gassed during the final German offensive in 1918.
Saying grimly to himself "I always knew I would use this again"he then told me -a girl of 15-that if the Germans came he would shoot me , my sister Peggy and my mother Lilley.He said he had seen such horrible things in France that he would despatch us .I was stunned to hear this.He hated Germans.The only good one is a dead one , he remarked.
My father was appointed the Home Guard area commander ,and he soon got all the village men organised.He was the local schoolmaster and the school and playground became the Home Guard headquarters.We lived in the schoolhouse .It was quite large and explosives and weapons were stored in our front hall under the stairs .We had Molotov Cocktails,hand grenades,guns,pikes ,sandbags everything you could think of.
My mother became a nervous wreck."If we get a direct hit we shall all go up " she said.
"Yes we will"replied my father laconically.
Drills started .Men came in every night and marched in the school playground.A black telephone was installed in our house.Cranfield 247!It was manned night nad day.Rotas were arranged .Blackout curtains were put up .
A huge blast wall was built outside our middle room window.It was dubbed the safest room in the house and so it proved.The cellar was turned into an air raid shelter.We had a Mohammedan prayer rug on the stone floor,a small table, four chairs ,a primus stove and kettle and cups and saucers for tea and tins of biscuits.It was quite cosy.
We all huddled down there when German bombers flew directly overhead on their way to bomb Coventry and then back down again when the bombers returned home.We rushed out and saw the horizon alight with flames from the burning city.We realised that we were all in for a bad time.
About five miles away in a Bletchley mansion huts were being constructed and strange civillians were coming to the village.One family bought an old slaugther house,white washed the interior and put up "artistic" black out curtains .Good old furniture appeared and I became very friendly with them.
The eldest girl "Jimmy" had a boyfriend who turned out to be a brilliant young Cambridge mathematician working at the Bletchley code breaking complex.He died in Bedford Hospital from meningitis.Right to the end he couldn't stop working out problems.
My father had an official car and a Home Guard driver , CQSM Jimmy Bettle , who looked just like the first world war cartoon character "Old Bill" by Bruce Bairnsfeather.Quite often they would motor out to country pubs in the course of their Home Guard duties.But they took their jobs seriously and would have fought if it came to it.In my father's company there was an MM , a DCM, an OBE and virtually all had seen active service in WW I including an ex-submariner and an RFC pilot.They were a lot more professional than the TV show "Dad's Army" might lead you to believe.
We all sat and listened to the nine o'clock news from London every night.A German plane flying very high would drone over at this time .We
got quite used to it .But one night -CRASH-huge explosions and blue lights flashed.Our windows were all blown out.Wallpaper was stripped from the walls,tiles clattered to the ground .
Three parachute mines aimed at RAF Cranfield, an OTU airfield only a few hundred yards away, was the intended target.One badly damaged our house.The village church opposite was badly damaged.The windows broken and the roof, with its beautifully carved medieval angels , was shattered.
The Howe's farm nearby was damaged.Mr Bates field of cows were blown to pieces .Peter Bates , the schoolboy son out on his bike ,had seen a parachute silently swinging down and thought it was a German parachutist.He was blown into a deep ditch in the land.
A third fell in open fields further down.Deep craters were discovered the next day.My father and his men were out all night helping people to settle down .All the villagers were afraid , but no one had been killed.The damage to shops and houses was repaired but some weeks later a farmer from about two miles away asked to see Captain Wheeler.
"Yes-what is it about?"
"There is a German camping out in my woods ,Sir" reported the farmer .
"Oh-we'll come and see".
It was yet another parachute mine caught in a tree , the silk canopy spread out on top of the branches and swaying in the wind.Portsmouth and the Navy were alerted and a squad came up.The mine was exploded on the spot and devastation happened all over again as the blast spread out .Windows,roofs and doors all had to be replaced for the second time.
Meanwhile a large deep shelter had been dug on the village green, and I went down there one night. It was awful-all the men women and children huddled down there with no ventilation and no room to move let alone sleep.One night was enough for me . I went back to our cellar.
A new baby girl was born to the baker's wife .My mother gave them my dolls cradle to sleep the little mite in while they were down in the shelter.
The black out was extensive and long dark winter nights were difficult.The tedium, the boredom !One farmer insisted on having lamps for his chickens in their sheds at night.He said his hens liked the light even though he was constantly being fined for breaching the blackout.
Our house was quite often briefly lit up by the Cranfield flare path as aircraft made their final approach. My mother was always ringing up the CO claiming it was making our house an easy target for hostile aircraft.
"There's a war on Madam!"he'd patiently reply after each complaint.
We had very little food.Ours was an open house to all servicemen.People came in with their own contributions.One RAF type came with a string of onions his father had grown.Later in the war the Americans were very generous arriving with cartons of Phillip Morris cigarettes(Mother smoked like a chimney!),tins of salted peanuts,sweets,chewing gum and all sorts of goodies.
Bruce and Barney ,two Australian airmen who were inseperable, were always good fun.Rayne Denis Schultz-a Canadian air ace frequently called with his US Navy friend Lt (JG) Everett Merton Woodward - a Mosquito pilot.
Others who popped in to play cards, play the piano or simply get away from service life for a few hours included Rene and Andre,two Free French pilots who cycled everywhere;Lt Anthony Piper from New York;a Belgian Freddy Moerman knicknamed "the Lion",Claude Arkell RAF who's family ran Arkell's brewery in the Cotswolds and Edwin Richfield RAF who later became a successful TV actor.
I sat for my Cambridge School Certificate in the summer of 1941-studying at night in and out of our air raid shelter and at Bedford Modern
School for Girls in a strengthend classroom with black-out windows and heavy wooden columns supporting the ceilings.I then went onto Hockerill College , Bishop Stortford to do a two year teacher training course .
Life at college could be difficult and dangerous.Getting there through London was a nightmare.Trains were always packed with troops.During raids you could be stuck in sidings for hours .I always carried some sort of food in case of emergencies.
The college was hit by a stick of bombs which killed two students .My art tutor was buried in rubble but got out alive.Later I did teaching practice in an East End school which was hit by a V1 Doodlebug.Luckily the building was empty at the time.Children cheered when they turned up to find it all in ruins!
At College we all had to do fire watching and visited the local military hospital to cheer up the troops.We all had boyfriends in the military ,their photos proudly displayed by our bedsides.All the teaching staff were female bar one.Mr Browning-a one legged veteran from world war one who taught botany and bee keeping. We all loved him.
We had weekly dances in the Gymnasium .Several students met and married US servicemen at these "dos".One airman who kept treading on my toes while dancing explained "Sorry Mam,I'm tired .I've just flown the Atlantic".
There was culture too.Benjamin Brittain and Peter Pears gave a concert ,as did the painist Harriet Cohen.
D - day came.I remember the hundreds , if not thousands, of planes passing overhead en route for Normandy. Our principal ,somewhat melodrammatically ,gathered us all to-gether."Girls"she announced "the invasion has started!".
I moved south to Brighton .There I grew more friendly with " Woody" Woodward the US Navy flyer. He was evaluating the De Havilland Mosquito for the US Navy.He and his colleagues found flying in overcast Europe difficult after training in the clear blue skies of the United States.
He once confided he and his navigator thought they were over the English Channel when in fact they were over the Irish sea!
In November 1944 I returned home to Cranfield to see my parents.I had arranged to meet "Woody" at a dance at the officers mess in Cranfield .I struggled up by train. He was to fly up from Ford where he was based.
I arrived at the dance but he didn't show up.I asked a friend where he was to be told fairly casually that he hadn't returned from a mission.I was only just 20 and had lost my first serious boyfriend.Distraught I returned home.Only my father was there .I cried and cried and cried.He didn't know what to do.
Later the US embassy informed me that "Woody" and his navigator were missing presumed dead while operating somewhere around Arnhem in Holland.
I had his mother's address but for some reason I didn't contact her .Years later I took my children to see his name engraved on the memorial wall at the American forces cemetary in Madingley near Cambridge.His death was the harsh climax of war for me.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.