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Wartime memories of Preston near Hitchin Part Two - The 'Home Front'

by bedfordmuseum

Contributed by 
bedfordmuseum
People in story: 
Mrs. Rebecca Cook
Location of story: 
Preston and Hitchin, Hertfordshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6003848
Contributed on: 
03 October 2005

Wartime memories of Preston and Hitchin Part Two — The ‘Home Front’

Part two of an oral history interview with Mrs. Rebecca Cook conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.

“My brothers did start enthusiastically to dig us an air raid shelter but it never got finished. No, no, we didn’t do anything to shelter during an air raid. I’m sure mother prayed. But we didn’t do anything and I remember sitting at night when it was dark and the aeroplanes going over we knew, we could hear ours going, you could almost count them as they were going to war. Then sometimes you would hear a plane with quite a different sound and dad would say, ‘That’s a German’ and we would wait and pray, ‘let it go over’ and kept going. I should imagine it would be some poor young man that was lost. Then sometimes we would hear … we did hear a bomb come whistling down and we would be frightened. We went out into the hall. I remember mother with the baby - we went and stood it the hall, a long passage which had no windows, just a door and a room at the other end. It came whistling down and it sounded just as if it was coming on the house. But here again, children find a different excitement because first thing next morning my brother said, ‘Come on, let’s go and look where the bomb landed.’ And we went across and there was this enormous hole in the middle of one of our fields and we found that quite exciting. I remember my husband saying there was one landed in one of his fields (Bourne End, Cranfield) and they used in which to bury a horse. It was just a ready made grave for the horse.

One fell on the local blacksmith but not on his house, I can’t remember anybody being killed. I suppose there were these poor young men just longing to get back home and so got rid of their bombs wherever they were. We had two or three on our farm but mercifully none actually on the house - nobody was hurt which was wonderful!

I remember one hot summer afternoon going swimming with a couple of my sisters, we used to cycle into Hitchin and there was a big open air swimming pool. It was a lovely boiling hot day and we’d taken sandwiches to have afterwards and suddenly we heard planes up above. And we looked up and there was a German plane and English fighter planes sort of dodging round and round it, I think they were Hurricanes, the fighter planes, round and round it. We looked up in horror because they were just above us and we could see them and then suddenly the Pool Attendant came across and shouted, ‘Everybody out, everybody out!’ We hurriedly threw our clothes on, you know without drying ourselves, hair streaming down our backs and threw our things in the bicycle baskets and hurried out of the swimming pool. There was no shelter there and just as we got outside, there was a long row of cottages and some people said, ‘Come in here.’ There were little alleyways between the cottages and they were so kind and we all went and stood in this alleyway until it had gone over. And they did shoot the poor chap down and then of course my brothers, being big brothers, went across to find the aeroplane and all the pieces of it. That was one of the most vivid things I can remember.

There was a lot of bombing over Luton, the Vauxhall Works and so on. We used to hear them, the crashes. And we could see late at night you could look down towards to London and actually see the sky red at night from the Blitz and you know you just couldn’t bear to think of people actually being blown to bits and burned to death and the bombs raining down. And next day, every single day there would be pictures of the Air Raid Wardens going around with the stretchers and the - just horror, just horror for six years. They were just part of our prayers every night, ‘Please God bring this war to an end.’ And you see for the six years for some of us growing up, the most formative years of our lives, that was war! But on the other hand you look back and you sing all the old songs, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Run Rabbit, Run’ all those there is a certain sort of nostalgia in it. Terrible as it was and how brave our men and our women were, and so young some of them. You know they went off and their mothers, their parents saw them go and they never came back. Terribly sad, yes every village lost some.

My father was in the Home Guard. They were all given the tin hats and their uniform and had drill, I suppose it was in the Playing Field. We used to play Home Guard, I know my little brother had a tin helmet and I know we used to play at being the Home Guard. Then they would have turns in fire watching, all the older men in the village who weren’t called up, they would go and watch for incendiary bombs being dropped all over the place and they had sand bags with which to put them out. Yes and they used to have, what do you call them, a sort of crossed barriers. They were put across the road so if anybody was coming along they would say, ‘Who goes there?’ and stop them at the dead of night and see who they were. ‘Halt, who goes there?’ they would say. Every single sign post was removed. It seems so childish now.

Then they were off on Army manoeuvers. And the Army lorries used to come down our little road and then it divided at the bottom and we’d go out and wave to these soldiers when we were sort of eleven, twelve, thirteen and point them in the direction we knew the others had gone. But thought that we were really being of great service to Army and they would wave to us of course. We had the Military Police, they were actually stationed only about two miles away, yes we did see quite a lot of them about.

We just got so used to the young men being about when you went into the town. And then Americans came and they were stationed … I don’t know where … they were stationed over here at Chicksands but I think they were a bit nearer to us. Because I remember the Americans coming into Hitchin because there were dances in the Town Hall where the young men used to go to. I remember this specifically, there was one young man, a RAF man and he used to come home from the war on leave and he used to come and take the Service in our little Chapel sometimes. We just got used to seeing them because all the men went you see.

And then of course we had the Prisoners of War, the Italians and the Germans to help us on the farm. The Italians were always so cheery and singing and quite happy and tried to talk to us if we went down the field. You know now-a-days they would look on that as highly dangerous. I remember once, my sister and I we just were a bit late and we said, ‘Oh, let’s take a day off’ and we actually played truant. We went down to the field and there was this gang of Italians, they were cutting hedges down and having a bonfire and burning it and they talked to us. Then they realised what we were doing and they raised their eyebrows and said, ‘Oh, you stay from school?’ you see and we went and got some potatoes and roasted them in their bonfire! Laughter! We had a whale of a time and then we decided that perhaps we ought to go for the afternoon session so we left them and went to school in the afternoon. I don’t know if our parents ever knew that!

They were brought to us in lorries each day. Some of them were a bit resentful I’m afraid. I remember having a German one and well of course they would be resentful but some of them were perhaps thought they were a cut above doing menial farm work. I remember we set them hedge cutting, at least my father did, and they cut it nearly down to the ground in their sort of fury I suppose at being set to work. But we treated them well. My mother always used to send them out some extra pudding or cake or something when they were having their lunch and we’d give them apples, we had fruit around the farm. Compared with how our poor men … I remember seeing a picture in the daily paper of poor skeletons of our prisoners and Belsen and so on. Then a picture of the German prisoners and the Italians alongside looking so fat and well and well fed, well happy I suppose some of them because they were out of the danger.

School girls were given a week off in the autumn to help with potato picking. Instead of half term everybody went potato picking and lorries used to come and pick them up. I mean we helped our own father but lorries used to come into town and take you out to which ever farms wanted you. I don’t know how much use we were but I hope we were good. Because there were no farm workers you see. We used to get pocket money I think for doing it.

We ploughed up all our dear old meadows that we loved and suddenly everything went under the plough. And then tractors came into being because up until then we’d had had horses and then tractors came. And, yes every inch was ploughed up and you know we were really self sufficient then. Often ships bringing in food would get bombed and anyway they were all used for the war, transporting troops and so on, all the ships … so we never saw an orange or a banana or any of the citrus fruits that were imported, grapes, unless they were home grown.

We farmed mainly sheep and cattle. So we suddenly had to change a whole way of farming. I think my eldest brother went into the RAF so then the next brother left school the minute he could and he took over the farm and I had a younger brother but he wasn’t, well he could help but he couldn’t drive a tractor because he was too little. We girls learnt as soon as we could manage, my brother taught us how to. I remember starting a tractor. Yes we used to help all through the harvest. Especially in the holidays and I used to be envious when I went back to school of hearing of what my friends had been up to because we were just helping all the time, working all through the end of July and August and into September. But it was just a way of life.

I think we only had the one tractor at first. But it was when you were carting corn, you see in those days we didn’t have the combine harvester, that didn’t come until towards the end of the war. So we cut the corn with a binder, then they were sheaves and then we had to go round and set them up in what we called shooks or in some parts they called them stooks. Then you came round with a tractor and trailer, well we used to do it with a horse and cart then when we had a tractor, with a tractor and a trailer and stop at every stook so we girls were roped in for that. As soon as you were strong enough, there was a very hard clutch that you had to hold down to stop and as soon as you had strength to sit on the seat and reach to hold this clutch down we were roped in to drive the tractor. We quite enjoyed it in the end. And then sometimes it was quite a long way back to the rick yard and then perhaps one of the men would come and take over then or let us drive and they would sit with us and see that we got safely through the gates and things. But as soon as we were big enough, when I think of ‘little old girls’ of 14 because some of us weren’t very big necessarily or strong! But we were always roped in for anything that was possible, whether moving the cattle from one field to another or from one farm to another, we all used to go out and help.

My sisters and I kept rabbits. My father gave us a big old, well it seemed big a barn, that wasn’t being used for anything else and we penned it all off and we kept dozens and dozens of rabbits and they bred and we reared them. First thing we did when we got home every night after school was to take a sack and go collecting hog weed and parsley and nap weed, everything we knew the rabbits would eat and feed them. And then when they were fat we took them into market and we made good pocket money because anything you could eat would sell you see and people bought rabbits. We never ate our own rabbits, but you didn’t mind other people eating them.”

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