- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr. John Vandepeer Clarke, Major C V Clarke and Mr. Stuart Macrae
- Location of story:
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- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 September 2005
Wartime memories of my childhood in Bedford Part One — Schooldays at Training College School and Bedford Modern School. My involvement in my father’s (Major C. V. Clarke) invention of the limpet mine.
Part one of an oral history interview with Mr. John Vandepeer Clarke conducted by Ann Hagen on behalf of Bedford Museum.
“My name is John Vandepeer Clarke. I was the eldest of three children of Major Clarke and his wife then living in Bedford. I left Bedford to live in at the age of about 19 when I went into the Army to do my National Service. I was born in 1928 and I had two brothers, who were three years and nine respectively younger than me, one of whom is still alive. My brothers and I, as children, lived in a house which was adjacent to my father’s Works. He was the Managing Director of the Low Loading Trailer Company, which he’d established in the late 1920s and early 1930s at the very foot of Clapham Road, on the north side of Clapham Road, the last house in fact in Tavistock Street. We went to school as children to the TCS, the Training College School in The Crescent which was a Froebel College for Teacher Training under the benevolent guidance of the Head Mistress whose name was Miss Spence as I recall. We used to trot along the 200 or 300 yards to the very friendly atmosphere of the school. I stayed there until I was nine or ten when I passed the entrance exam to go to Bedford School in the Preparatory Department.
Before the war Bedford was a much smaller town, it was only about 40,000 population and we had a very quiet life. There was a regular pattern of school, and holidays were generally spent in the town but every summer we would have a fortnights holiday away, generally in South Wales. My father and mother would take us off to The Gower for a wonderful time on the beach and on the cliffs there in South Wales. When I‘d finished at the Training College School and went to Bedford School, this was in 1938 at the time of the Munich Crisis. By which time my father was getting very concerned as an ex-Army Officer from the First World War when he had won the M.C. for his work in Italy and France; he was getting very concerned that the country was heading for another war with Germany. He started making preparations for what might happen and I remember trenches being dug and Air Raid Precautions starting and I believe he was the ARP Officer for Bedford, for the period immediately before the war.
I used to go again on foot up Tavistock Street. It must be the most familiar street to me from my memories of Bedford, full of shops some of which haven’t changed at all since that time. Up to the corner of De Parys Avenue and initially to the Preparatory Department, the Prep School known as the Inky at Bedford School where I was for two years. I was in the top class and I did fairly well in the class. We were taught in the first year by a very pleasant young exchange teacher from Canada whose name was Mr. P. A. Bridle and he was known actually to us children as ‘Pa’. He got he got us in the first year into the rudiments of school life at Bedford School and left after a year. He was in fact lucky to survive his return journey which had started before the war. But as he was on Athenia, the liner Athenia, he had the unlucky distinction of being one of the first people to be sunk by a German U boat only a day or two after the commencement of war in 1939. [On 3 September 1939, over 100 lost their lives.]
I remember September the 3rd, 1939 very clearly standing to attention in our house while the National Anthem was played and hearing Chamberlain speaking. We had help in the house because my mother was the Company Secretary of the Low Loading Trailer Company; therefore we had a maid and we had a cook as well. We could hear they were in tears in the kitchen as they heard the news. Then a few minutes later the air raid sirens sounded but it was a false alarm. It sounded over London and I think for good measure they thought they’d better include Bedford just in case German planes came over.
Within the next month or two we were on a war footing and my father had been engaged in the design of a limpet mine a new form of weapon for sinking ships. This had been dreamed up in conjunction with the editor of ‘Science Armchair’ Magazine and also a Caravan and Trailer Magazine in the Home Counties. He had met my father a couple of years before. My father, who not only made trailers but also made caravan chassis, the coach work being done locally to produce some really beautiful caravans in the late 1930s and also horse boxes, all sorts of things. He had got a reputation by the late 1930s for being a very clever designer for all sorts of trailers to tow behind vehicles. Because of his success with this caravan he designed and had built in 1937 it came to the notice of Mr. Stuart Macrae who was the editor of these technical journals and he was very impressed and wrote an article having seen and travelled in this beautifully designed caravan. He wrote a very commendable article about the caravan and thus these two men had got a link. When, in 1939, Macrae was asked by somebody in the War Office if he could assist with the procurement or getting information where such things could be procured, whether he could supply or find a supplier for limpets and he was not told initially what they were for. But after his security clearance had been established with the War Office Macrae was told that the idea was to provide limpet mines that could sink enemy shipping. So he said, ‘I will do my best to design something with a colleague of mine whom I know and the two of us together, I think we can produce something for the use of British Forces.’ He’d got a short time but as he said, he’d got a bag of money from the War Office to do everything that was necessary. He contacted my father and came down to Bedford and the two got on very well - they’d known each other before because of the caravan experience. They cleared all the children out of the room where they were discussing the matter and then started to get the design together. It was very much an ad hoc way of approaching the thing but both were brilliant at lateral thinking and the two men within about a month (this was in June/July 1939) before the war, had evolved a practicable Mark I type of limpet mine.
As the eldest boy, I was then 10 years old, I took a keen interest in what was going on and I knew broadly speaking what this was about. I was told not to say anything about it to my school boy friends. But the interesting things about the limpet mine was that it was very much Bedford home made. The two men visited Woolworths and they got washing up bowls made of spun aluminium to contain the explosives. They then raided all the sweet shops in Bedford for aniseed balls that were used as a time delay for the setting off of the explosives. So that the saboteurs, frogmen who were attaching these limpet mines to the side of enemy ships, could have a safe time to escape before the charges went off. So I saw quite a lot of this activity going on in the house, particularly this interesting development with an unusual use of aniseed balls. The aniseed balls were drilled and then they were put into little detonator capsules and my father had these ranged around the house and setting off at different times depending on the amount of aniseed ball that was used on each detonator. He would rush into the room in the house where, on the mantlepiece, one of these charges would be put in a big glass Woolworth’s tumbler and he would say, ‘Right, that’s 35 minutes’. It didn’t matter that probably the glass had fractured and all the water had gone - he had got something that worked and they were quickly able to establish how much of an aniseed ball was needed to give the varying times of delay that the operators would require.
The local Bedford Baths, the Bedford Modern School Baths, which are at the top of Clarendon Street, only about 200 yards away from the house, were used for the practical trials. A swimmer would be loaded up with the limpet mines before swimming to the side of a ship and plant the charge against the side using magnets on the underside of the limpet mine. Hence the curved shape with the magnets underneath it looked like a gigantic limpet when it was attached to the hull of a ship. My father gallantly undertook all these tests himself with a steel plate strapped around his tummy and the charge on the limpet mine attached to it. He had quite a lot of problems with adjusting the number of magnets to be used. If it was too strong you just couldn’t get the thing off and were struggling underwater with a very heavy metal casing on your tummy. Eventually they got the right degree of buoyancy and the right number of magnets and the Bedford Modern School Baths knowing it was a security arrangement, kindly closed the Baths to the public for a couple of hours whenever these practices were required. There they where, swimming up and down and plonking them on a steel plate at the deep end and this worked well. Then to simulate the effect of a ship having had a limpet mine planted on it, all unsuspected, deciding to get underway and move through the water we had to ensure that the drag of the water on the limpet mine on the side of the hull wouldn’t cause it to come away. I remember going with my father in the motor boat and we trundled up and down the Ouse at different speeds with this underwater device, which nobody could see because it was under the water. And we demonstrated that the launch could travel up to 10 or 15 knots and the limpet mine was still firmly attached. So that was yet another test that my father had to undergo and it was all extremely interesting and exciting. I would repeat that this was done just before the war started.
We went on holiday with our lovely caravan which by that time, because myself and my younger brother, three years younger than me, were getting larger and larger. My father decided to take the unusual step of having the original 1937 caravan with its wonderful lines somewhat spoiled. It was but not too bad looking but very unusual looking, providing a second storey on the caravan. So we had a double decker caravan with room for the boys, that’s myself and my brother, to sleep in the upstairs accommodation which we reached by a ladder coming down off the back of the caravan, out of doors. I distinctly remember in 1939 we went on holiday after all the experimentation on the limpet mine had been completed; we went to North Wales and we had to be very careful because there were a great number of low bridges. Every time, as we left Bedford, we would stop if there was a low railway bridge and approach very cautiously to see whether we’d got the inch or two clearance we needed to get through with out taking the caravan top off. But after a while I must say my father, temperamentally he got rather blasé about this and just charged at every bridge he came to - fortunately without any real damage to the caravan. I remember going through North Wales, standing, which I’m sure would be contrary to Health and Safety Regulations today, on the catwalk on the roof of the original caravan outside of our cabin and getting a fine view of the countryside as we went along the A5 through North Wales. Then we came back and the war started.
For us children, in Bedford School we found all the usual precautions being taken. All the classrooms being protected from blast with tapes over the windows and many rooms strengthened with steel or wooden props to prevent damage should part of the building collapse onto the ground floor. I progressed through one more year in the Preparatory School, in the Inky, and then went into the Lower School and up into the Upper School. Again, it was almost the end of the war and we were still living in Tavistock Street and so I had my daily trundle along Tavistock Street to get to Glebe Road or Burnaby Road to get into the school.”
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