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From East Acton to Palestine and Back

by Wymondham Learning Centre

Contributed by 
Wymondham Learning Centre
People in story: 
John Blyde
Location of story: 
East Acton, Oxford, Caterham, Minehead, Hawick, Palestine and France.
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A3934938
Contributed on: 
22 April 2005

John Blyde

This story was submitted to the BBC People’s War site by Wymondham Learning Centre on behalf of the author who fully understand the site's terms and conditions.

I was born in November 1926 and was almost thirteen when the war began. We lived in a small house in East Acton, near Wormwood Scrubs in London — my father and mother, myself, and my three sisters. My two older sisters, who were sixteen and almost eighteen, went to work in factories. My father, who was about forty-one, had been in the army in India and was in the Territorial Army. He was called up at the start of the war. Later an Irish girl doing war work came to live with us. I think one of my sisters might have met her in a factory. The house was always full of girls during the war.

My younger sister was only seven and was evacuated to Oxford. Because she was so young I went with her. We boarded with a young couple with a baby. The wife was a wonderful cook and the food was lovely. She made delicious lardy-cakes.

I don’t remember how long I stayed in Oxford, but I remember seeing some of the wounded from Dunkirk laid out on the lawns at the front of one of the Oxford hospitals in 1940. A sea of blue hospital uniforms. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.

My younger sister stayed in Oxford but after some time I went back to East Acton, left school and started work. My first job was as tea boy and general dogsbody in a garage where my father had worked as a mechanic. I was paid 16 shillings and four pence for a five and a half day week. I learnt to drive there.

The Germans were bombing London. An Anderson shelter was built in our garden but it leaked badly and was constantly flooded. The interior was concreted so often that in the end it was too small to be any use and we didn’t bother with it. We got used to the bombing. They say you can get used to anything, don’t they? When the doodlebugs first started coming over we’d hide under the table, but the bombs didn’t stop my older sisters from going out and having a good time. There were dances in every pub and in many factory canteens, and they’d be out nearly every night. I used to save up my clothing coupons for them in return for cigarettes or other things, like butter- I can’t stand margarine. I often went to visit a friend in Harlesden and had to walk home — buses stopped at 9 p.m. It was a long walk through an air raid, but I just kept going. We never used Underground station shelters because where we were the line ran mostly above ground, where there were none.

Shortages are what I remember. Our family hadn’t had a lot before the war, when my father was often out of work and my mother skinned rabbits and washed jam jars in factories to keep us afloat. But we didn’t need a lot — not as much as people seem to need today.

Most factories had good canteens selling good solid British food very cheaply — better than you could get at home. There was a good British restaurant on the estate at East Acton selling the same. We were pretty well off for food, really.

Eventually I got work at Dubilier, a factory making electrical transformers.
I joined the Home Guard when I was at Dubilier. We trained in the factory canteen, using rifles with no bullets. The use of the rifle was demonstrated with blanks. In fact I never saw any ammo when I was in the Home Guard. One Saturday evening we went on an exercise in Hanger Lane, some of us positioned with our empty rifles on the balconies of the flats having cups of tea with the tenants while we hung about waiting for the “Germans” to arrive.

I was also a firewatcher. We’d work on a rota, usually two of us watching from the factory roof for fires started by incendiary bombs. If we spotted a fire one of us would run down and alert the fire-fighters.

It wasn’t easy changing jobs during the war — you had to get permission from the Ministry of Labour and were only allowed to move from one type of war work to another. I managed to transfer to a better-paid job at an aircraft factory on the North Circular Road, making Mosquito bombers and parts for Halifax bombers. Lots of girls worked there.

When the bombing got bad I left and joined a building firm that worked for the “Flying Squad”. It was good money. When the doodlebugs started coming over in earnest teams of men, many Irish, would go wherever they were sent to clean up the mess and put tarpaulins up to make places watertight as fast as possible. We went all over London.

My team was called out when a London bus fell into a bomb crater when a bomb landed immediately in front of it. I don’t know whether anyone survived. Heavy machinery was needed to haul the bus out of the hole.

While I was working on the roof of a place in Kilburn, three storeys high, I slipped. I slid down the roof on my back, digging my heels into the tiles to try to stop myself. My feet hit the guttering, which gave way, and I fell off the roof. I landed on a huge pile of broken tiles that had been tossed off the roof, and they broke my fall. If they hadn’t been there I’d almost certainly have been killed. I was sent home for the day. I must have been bruised, but I had no broken bones.

In 1944, the year I turned eighteen, I was called up, so for a while my father and I were both in the army, though we only saw each other once on leave during the war. I was put into the Grenadier Guards. I was given a warrant for railway travel and sent to barracks at Caterham in Surrey, where everyone went for initial training. I remember the jazz trumpeter Humphrey Littleton, who was also in training in the Grenadiers, playing in the NAAFI. It was winter, and we were made to gallop around in the snow in our vests and shorts to toughen us up. I was already pretty tough, as I’d had a hard life. Some of the men probably suffered more than I did.

After initial training we went to Windsor, where there was more marching and running around in Windsor Park, and night training on the river. Then to Minehead in Somerset to practice landing from barges — doing the opposite of lemmings, trying to leap out of the water and up cliffs.

Then we were sent to Scotland, near Hawick in the Borders. There was a German POW camp there and one of our duties was to guard it. It wasn’t a big camp — about two hundred or so prisoners. Hawick was a small place and there wasn’t a lot to do for entertainment. There were Polish soldiers stationed nearby. There was a regular hop in the village hall, and there were lots of fights with the Poles over girls. I didn’t get involved in any myself. One of my mates had an auntie in the town and when we had leave we’d visit her, and she’d give us some homemade cake to take back to camp. The grub was good in Hawick. We had good porridge with sugar.

Sometime after VE day in 1945 we were sent abroad. We were given seventy-two hours embarkation leave in London. I stood for eight hours on the train from Carlisle to London with all my gear, and then had to travel all the way back to Scotland with it before being sent down to ship out at Southampton. I don’t know why we couldn’t have been sent to the port from London. They talk about red tape today, but there was a lot more of it then.

We went on an old, rotten French tub, the “Champollion”. The food was foul. A battalion of South Wales Borderers travelled with us and we organised boxing matches with them for entertainment. We thought we were headed for the Far East, but we ended up at Haifa in what was then Palestine. Of course we weren’t told why, but later we thought that probably the atom bomb had been dropped on Japan while we were at sea, and we had been diverted.

Although the war was officially over there was still trouble in Palestine, which was being flooded with Jewish refugees. Palestine was under British mandate and the British were attempting to limit Jewish immigration because of protests from the Arabs. At one point we were called out to back up the Red Caps in an incident with a ship full of illegal immigrants — men, women and children - that had been refused entry into Haifa. Some of the refugees jumped overboard, others refused to leave the ship. The ship was rusty and conditions on board filthy. They were all taken off. Some of them had to be dragged. They were stripped and sprayed with DDT to delouse them and taken away to detention camps.

We thought the local Jews were friendly, until two British Sergeants were taken out of a bar by members of the Stern gang and hanged in an orange grove. The gang, led by Abraham Stern, were Zionists extremists who objected to the British administration. We never had any trouble from the Arabs.

I got dysentery in Palestine. It just struck me down. I was out of the Regiment for three months, and my weight went down to seven stone. I was at a convalescence centre outside Haifa. There was a horse-changing centre nearby and I learnt to ride a horse there. Camel trains ended up there as well — it must have been a staging post, because we’d see hundreds of camels milling around on the beach overnight and they’d be gone next day.

In the winter of 1947 I was given leave. I was sent home by what was called the MEDLOC route, on a US Liberty ship via Port Said to Toulon in Vichy France, where we stayed in a transit camp for three days during which we were forbidden to have any contact with the locals because the Vichy regime had collaborated with the enemy. It must have been someone in the camp who made the postcard containing my photo in a rose-wreathed heart, which I sent to my mother. We then travelled across France by train. It was bitterly cold. I’ve never been so cold in my life. The train stopped at Lyon or Dijon, where German prisoners served us food. They were better off than we were. They had tins laid out in which they were collecting foreign coins, and were selling cigarette cases made from old mess tins — beautiful filigree work.

I eventually got a boat to Liverpool and was demobbed at the end of 1947. I was twenty-one. I was given three months demob leave and then I had to find a job.

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