- Contributed by
- Isle of Wight Libraries
- People in story:
- Vera F. Webber (nee Pritchard)
- Location of story:
- Hastings, Portsmaouth, Southampton
- Background to story:
- Royal Navy
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 June 2005
"This story was submitted to the People's War site by Linda and has been added to the website on behalf of Mrs. Webber with her permission and she fully understands the site's terms and conditions."
My war started in 1938 after Mr. Chamberlain returned from Germany with his piece of paper. Working at the Plummer Roddis store in Hastings, six of us were loaned to assemble civilian gas masks, which we did under the large open air swimming pool in St. Leonards, for one week. After war was declared in 1939, the large hotel, which looked like a cruise liner, was filled with aspiring pilots on the first leg of training. Following Dunkirk, these rapidly moved to Blackpool.
Then a trailer load of whole fir trees were dumped at the promenade where a party of Canadian soldiers set to work with axes to split them from top to bottom. The resulting logs were used for beach defences. At this point, the promenade was shut off and all the residents evacuated. My parents and I moved to a bungalow at Fairlight (which was at the back of the town on top of the cliffs). Unhappily, at the end of the close was an observation post, which the Germans endeavoured to knock out by sending a lone bomber over at four hourly intervals, sending everyone down to their shelters.
On one occasion, when the all clear had sounded, I went home to lunch. Having got off the bus, I had a short climb up an unmade road to our close. As it was summer, I was wearing a white, curly mock fur coat. Hearing the sound of an aircraft, I looked up only to see a German bomber skimming over the rooftops. Pretending I was a sheep, I continued doubled up to the top of the road. I took another look at the plane,
just as it opened its bomb doors, and I saw a stick of bombs just as they were released, before gravity turned them nose down. I also clearly saw the face of the airman in the front turret, holding a machine gun. When the sounds indicated that a strike was imminent, I threw myself into the gutter. By the grace of God, the bomb nearest to me was a Molotov breadbasket containing 100 incendiary bombs, 94 of which landed in a field at the bottom of our gardens. The other six scattered up through the gardens, finally straddling a house each side of the road. Not knowing what these would do, I took a chance and ran between them to reach home, much shaken.
A few days later on September 15th (Battle of Britain Day) I arrived home to find my parents waiting with the car, loaded as far as possible, ready to set off. They had no destination in mind, having been advised that every person not involved in defence roles should evacuate the town. We set off in a vague northwest direction. Arriving at nightfall at Kingsclere, we went into a café, which was open. Making enquiries as to the possibility of overnight accommodation, we were assured that the town was completely full of London evacuees. However, a gentleman came in off the London commuter train and the café owner, knowing that he had a converted chicken house in his garden, asked if we could use that. After consultation with his wife, we were gratefully installed. Three months later, my parents had finally found a hotel to buy in Devizes, which was a garrison town, headquarters of the Wiltshire Regiment and a field artillery training camp. I helped at the business until, as the calling up process had almost reached my age group, I volunteered to join the WRNS.
After my initial training, which included a period in Portsmouth where we were inspected by Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and another at Dover where we were being shelled (yet another story) I eventually was posted to the Great Western Hotel in Southampton, as the quarter's assistant in charge of the WRNs quarters. We occupied the whole of the third floor and parts of the ground and first floors. It was now 1943.
Early in 1944 all home leave was cancelled and we were confined to Southampton. The Wrens worked in a variety of jobs around the town. One group who were quartered and worked in Woolston, were involved in the PLUTO oil pipeline (which I learn crossed the Isle of Wight and went out through Shanklin Chine). This was all very hush hush.
Residents in Southampton might remember seeing a squad of Wrens being paraded around the streets. This was an attempt to fill in the evenings. During the entire day a constant stream of American vehicles and men were being loaded onto LCTs until eventually the Solent was filled from one side to the other with ships.
For a week prior to D-Day, a wren petty officer and four other ratings set sail every night in a small craft moving among all these vessels distributing cipher books.
On the night preceding D-day, after the sounds of the engines in the air and on the water made it obvious that the big push had started. We were sent to the basement shelters. At daybreak we were allowed to return to our cabins, when the distinct sound of a buzz bomb drew us to the window just in time to see it sailing by on level with us. It cut out and plunged into the now empty harbour. What a blessing that they had not got the co-ordinates 24hours earlier. It landed roughly where the component parts of what we learned, became Mulberry Harbour, had been fabricated.
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