- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Kathleen Frances Reece; Sue Holifield (her daughter, the author of this story)
- Location of story:
- West Byfleet, Surrey and Ledbury, Herefordshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 22 January 2006
Ledbury Grammar School, Herefordshire, in 1942-43. This was the whole of the Upper V year - 15 pupils! Kathleen Reece is sitting second from right. Others are Ruth Maddox, Bunty James, David Powell, Ray Carpenter and Whisky Walker.
In August 1925, my mother, Kathleen Reece, was born in the Royal Naval Maternity Hospital in Gillingham, Kent. She was the second of Charlie and Ada’s three children. Her elder sister was Peggy and her younger brother was John.
My Grandfather, Charlie, had joined the Royal Navy at the age of 17, training at HMS Ganges at Shotley in Suffolk. Having served in the First World War, he married Ada in 1919. Whenever possible, throughout his Naval career, Ada and the children joined Charlie at his postings around England and in Malta.
When Charlie retired from the Navy in 1933, his electrical engineering experience enabled him to get a job at West Byfleet power station in Surrey, so the whole family settled there.
War breaks out
Kathleen was 14 when war broke out. At that time she was a pupil at Woking Secondary School for Girls. Here are her memories of that frightening time:
“My sister Peggy was working in the Civil Service in London. On 2nd September 1939 -the day before war broke out, and two days before her 17th birthday - she was evacuated with the rest of her department to Tunbridge Wells. Although she felt that it would be an adventure, she couldn’t really enjoy it because she feared that many people would lose their lives in the war.”
“The day the outbreak of war was announced — 3rd September 1939 — was a Sunday. We had just come home from church, and I remember sitting on the mahogany sideboard next to the wireless while Mother was in the kitchen cooking lunch. We heard the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, give the announcement that Britain was at war with Germany. Our stomachs turned over, and we didn’t know what to do.
“In the following days people started digging holes in their gardens for the Anderson air-raid shelters that were distributed to some households. Dad helped our next-door neighbours to dig a huge hole in their back garden, into which they lowered their garden shed. It had benches either side for us all to sit on during air-raid warnings. Our neighbours left a big tin of biscuits in the shed, but this only lasted a couple of days because there were several air raid warnings early on, and we children rushed to the shed to eat them. The adults didn’t seem to take much notice of the warnings. We didn’t realise that biscuits would be rationed in the coming months.”
In 1939 one of Kathleen’s Christmas presents was a diary, complete with pictures of British warplanes. Although she now wishes she had written more details about her life during the war, she has recorded key events that are enough to bring back her memories. Here are some of them:
“After war broke out Dad, who was in a reserved occupation, had six months’ grace before he was recalled to the Royal Navy. He went on 4th March 1940. Because of his previous torpedo and electrical experience he was posted as an instructor to the shore-based training depot, HMS Vernon, in Portsmouth.
“Soon after the war started, Mum took in two evacuees from London’s East End. They were brothers aged about nine and seven, and were very poor. They had been ‘sewn into’ their jumpers for the winter, but of course Mum stripped them off and gave them a bath. They would only eat fish and chips and were not very co-operative. When Dad came home for the weekend, he contacted the woman who had organised the homing of the refugees, and she found another home for them.
“A few months later, a whole school — teachers and pupils - was evacuated from London to Woking. Because there wasn’t enough room to accommodate the evacuated pupils elsewhere, they shared our school. The Woking Secondary School girls attended on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and we went to games lessons on Thursdays, if the trains were running. The evacuated school used our buildings on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday mornings. The Woking teachers helped out in other schools when they were not teaching us.”
Charlie Reece in Langenhoe — the start of the Battle of Britain
“During his war service with HMS Vernon, Dad was posted to Langenhoe near Colchester in Essex, to work with the Army, putting sea mines into the newly built Abberton reservoir. This was to protect it against German sea planes that might try to land on it. He did similar work on other stretches of water around the East coast of England.“
According to the Birch, Layer Breton and Layer Marney Local History website (Centenary Chronicles No. 33):
“No sooner had the reservoir been flooded than, as part of the anti invasion measures, it was sown with mines to prevent enemy seaplanes landing. Using a grid pattern, 140 mines were used being secured to concrete blocks to weigh them down. During hard winters it was not unknown for ice to cause the occasional explosion.”
Kathleen also remembers Charlie telling her about seagulls landing on the floating mines and setting them off.
Kathleen recalls: “In August 1940, just before we went to visit Langenhoe, a German Heinkel (aircraft) had crashed, just missing the reservoir, and nearly hitting Dad’s car. A splash of an airman’s blood landed on the windscreen. Dad, who didn’t look much like an officer as he wore overalls to work, arrested one of the German airmen. The German protested, saying: ‘Militaire, militaire’ - because he wanted to be dealt with by an official rather than someone who appeared to be a member of the public - whereupon Dad replied: ‘I’m good enough b***** militaire for you!’ Dad also found an airman’s wallet, which he handed in to the Police.
“On the weekend of 3rd September 1940 Dad came home to Byfleet, and just as I was looking forward to a Latin exam on the Monday, took us away for a few days to avoid the bombing. We went to stay at the house in Langenhoe where he was billeted. The house next door was occupied by soldiers. He took us for a walk around the reservoir, and showed us where the German plane had crashed, right at the edge. As far as I remember, there was a big wall that had been blackened by the fire.”
“When we went back to the house, an aeroplane suddenly spluttered overhead. We thought it was going to hit us, it was so low. We just watched in horror, because of course there was a pilot inside. At that moment we didn’t know whether it was a German or British plane, but we later found out it was a German Dornier. It flew away from us, and because the ground sloped away to the river, it didn’t hit the ground until it was quite a long way away. The soldiers next door all ran out of the house, down the hill towards the crash. Then, all together, they turned round and ran back to the house. A few seconds later, they came out again, wearing their gas masks and with bayonets drawn.”
An account of the war in the Abberton area, The battle in the air by St Andrew’s Parochial Church Council 11/11/00, describes the same Dornier being shot down and crashing in the Pyefleet Channel. Of the crew of four, only one survived.
Kathleen reflects that, although they were unaware of it at the time, this period was the Battle of Britain.
Later in his East Anglian posting, Charlie and his team went to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast to lay mines. After Charlie had left Aldeburgh one of his young Able Seamen, whom Kathleen had met in Langenhoe, picked up a mine on the beach and was killed as it exploded.
Bombing in West Byfleet
“Mum, John and I, and Binks our dog, continued to live in West Byfleet, with Dad and Peggy away for much of the time — although Dad used to come home as often as he could. Sometimes he would be asked to escort a Naval deserter back to a Naval base and would call in at Byfleet on the way back to Portsmouth. I can remember him arriving dressed in his uniform, which included an ammunition belt and gaiters.
“The bombing became bad and it was quite normal for us to spend the night under the stairs, or sleeping downstairs so that we could run for shelter if there was an air raid warning. Binks soon learnt what the sound of the siren meant and would run with us to the cupboard under the stairs.
“I travelled by train to school in Woking. If the electric trains had been bombed, they used steam engines and we had to travel in cattle trucks or the guard’s van. We were quite often late because of the bombing. We also had to run to dodge bullets from German aircraft overhead. We spent an awfully long time down the shelters. One diary entry in October 1940 reads: ‘Six warnings during school, and one in the evening … One warning in the middle of the House Music Competition.’
“One evening, when we were returning home from the pictures in Woking, we looked out to see the sky above the power station lit up by flares on small parachutes, silently drifting to the ground. It was very eerie. The German planes had dropped these lights over the power station so that they could see it to bomb it. We could even see the planes circling overhead each time the searchlights lit them up from the ground.
"Another night, when I was sleeping on a camp bed downstairs, I heard a loud explosion outside. It made the blackout curtains blow into the room, but no windows were broken. A bomb had fallen onto the power cables across the road and luckily it exploded before it hit the ground, only making a small crater in the road. If it had exploded on the ground, it would have damaged our house and the others nearby. Another bomb destroyed a shop in Byfleet.
Escape to Ledbury
“Some weeks after we visited Langenhoe, Dad thought it was still very dangerous at West Byfleet and decided to take us to Ledbury in Herefordshire. This was the perfect place as it was rural. It was also where Dad was born and grew up, so he had several friends and relations there. On 30th October 1940 Mum, John (aged 7) and I packed our cases, got Binks, and set off in the car late at night with Dad driving. We reached the Cotswolds at about one o’clock in the morning, so stopped on the side of the road to sleep. The dark night sky was lit up by the searchlight beams crossing overhead. An Army lorry pulled up beside our car, and the Sergeant shone a torch, asking Dad what he was doing. It was very frightening. During their muffled conversation we could hear Dad explaining, and the Sergeant replying: ‘OK Chief’.
“After a few hours’ sleep, we set off again and arrived in Ledbury in the early morning. I can remember seeing a baker’s shop just as we came into the town, and when we parked outside it the scent of freshly baked bread filled the car. The owner called: ‘Come in and have some breakfast, Charlie!’ We sat down to eat eggs and bacon - which was rationed, of course - and fresh bread.
“The first Friday we were there, Dad took me to visit Ledbury Grammar School and to meet the headmaster, and it was agreed that I could attend the school. Bunty, who was to become one of my great friends, took me to school on my first day. We were in the Lower Fifth. It was an unusual experience for me, coming to a co-educational school from an all girls’ school, and actually sitting next to a boy!
“Ledbury Grammar School had been established by local farmers to educate their children. It was a large, ancient country house. Our classroom was right at the top of the building — the walls were clad in carved oak panelling and it had its own staircase. The building stood in acres of land. There was a lake with an island in the middle, and one day a group of us decided to explore the island. The only way to reach it was by crawling across the water along some iron pipes. When we reached the island we discovered some dogs’ graves.
“Mum, John, Binks and I stayed with Mrs Yapp during our first weeks in Ledbury. There was no running water, so we had to use the icy cold water from the pump in the back yard to wash every morning. The loos were earth closets down the garden.
“As soon as we moved to Ledbury, my parents let the house in Byfleet to tenants. We had left a lot of our belongings behind and locked them in one bedroom, but while we were away the house was burgled, including the locked room, and my jewellery box was taken.
“Mum, John and I moved to Market House in Ledbury Market Place with Mr Daws, a builder and carpenter, and his wife. Mum shared the kitchen with the Dawses, but we had our own bedrooms.
Eventually Mum, John and Binks moved to Brighton, where Dad had been posted, and I stayed in Ledbury to finish my schooling. Now an official evacuee, I went to live with a lovely family - Mr and Mrs Preece and their two young sons John and Pat. I had my own bedroom, and years later, even when the boys had left home and married, the room was always known as ‘Kath’s room’.
"Food was rationed, including meat, butter, bread, tinned foods and sweets. Our school tuck-shop was closed, but for two terms running, Cadbury’s sent us a large box of chocolate bars. As school prefects, my friend Brenda and I were detailed to share them out fairly to the whole school. We barricaded ourselves in the porch, which was out of bounds to all except prefects, as the boys made frequent attacks on us to pinch the chocolates — all in fun!
“School lunches weren’t rationed, so we ate quite well. When Dad was on leave he went shooting with his farmer friends and at one time we had rabbit for dinner nearly every day of the week.”
Kathleen and Brenda helped in the canteen at the Ledbury ATC (Air Training Corps) weekly training nights. Kathleen was also a member of the Girls’ Training Corps, where she learnt about first aid and hygiene, and took part in fund raising events. Their uniform was a navy blue skirt and a hat with a stripe on the side. Kathleen often helped with Home Guard practices, and remembers being ‘rescued’ out of a building by the Fire Brigade. During War Weapons Week the girls took part in a parade through Ledbury with an RAF band and local units including the Home Guard, the Red Cross, the ATC and GTC. The film star George Arliss attended one fund raising event, and signed Kathleen’s autograph book.
Kathleen has vivid memories of one disturbing event:
“The Ledbury WRVS (Women’s Royal Volunteer Service) had a lovely, brand new, van for dispensing refreshments. It was a gift from the Americans. One evening the women — including Bunty’s mum — were called away urgently, and we waved them off in their new van. After dark we could see an orange glow on the horizon to the north east, and later discovered that this was Coventry after it had been bombed. When the ladies returned to Ledbury the next morning, they were exhausted and shaken, and the van was filthy. They had been to Coventry that night, but never talked about it.”
After Kathleen left school, she moved to Brighton to live with the rest of her family. Her story continues in a second chapter: A teenager's war: A secret mission in Brighton.
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