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Wartime Memories

by cornwallcsv

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs Pryor, Lord Randall of ST Budeaux, Mr. Gundry, ,Jean Bryant and Mrs Dorothy Gwendolen Wigington (pilot's wife)
Location of story: 
Breage, West Cornwall
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 October 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War website by Doreen Bennett on behalf of Denys Arthur Bryant, the author and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

Wartime Memories

During the Second World War I lived in the village of Breage which is 3 miles west of Helston on the main A394 road to Penzance.

Many of the local men were members of the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) or Home Guard and most nights two of the Home Guard would keep a look out from the top of Breage church tower which was only about 30 yards from my home so on still nights I could hear their voices.

Food was rationed of course, and we needed books of coupons to receive our allocations from the village shops of which there were 5 at that time. Although living in the country meant that rabbits, vegetables, eggs and occasionally cream and butter were available.

I started as a pupil at Breage Church of England School in September and I remember taking part in the gas mask drills, regularly. It was not pleasant wearing one for any length of time and I often wondered how we would have managed had it been for real. One lad had a Mickey Mouse version with a pink nose which caused much amusement to us but embarrassment to him.

At school we were encouraged to buy National Savings Stamps and National Savings Certificates. Waste paper collection was a priority and every scrap was saved together with as much cardboard as possible. I used an empty sand bag to collect from my neighbours and then took it to an old garage which was a storage point. It became known as the “Salvage Hut”. On 2nd June 1944 the school was presented with the Waste Paper Recovery Association’s Silver Cup for being top collectors for two quarters of the year.

Red Cross parcels from America arrived at school from time to time and were very welcome. The contents would be displayed on a table at the front of the class and each child was invited to go and choose a present. Unfortunately chewing gum which we all wanted was always removed and I usually ended up with a bag of marbles. Most boys used to collect strips of tinfoil about a foot long and half an inch wide which would be found beside the road or in the surrounding fields. We did not know what it was at the time but learnt later on that they were dropped from aircraft to confuse the radar. Other very collective items were brass spent bullet cases. I can’t remember where they came from but probably the Home Guard on exercises. If you were lucky enough to get a brass bullet that was something very special.

Of course the black out was an important part of wartime life and had to be strictly adhered to. The blackouts in our home consisted of wood frames covered with black paper which were fitted inside the windows to keep the light in during the winter and in summer to help us get to sleep as it was often light until 10pm with double British summer time in force. On the buses the only interior light was attached to a rail beneath the roof, which the conductor would slide along as he stopped at each seat to punch tickets.
There were few cars about at the time but those that were on the road had black masks with horizontal slots fitted on the headlamps which I don’t think were very effective.

Entertainment was also very limited, although on Saturdays my Dad often took me by bus to Penzance where we saw films in either the Ritz or Savoy cinemas. I was more interested in the Pathe News than the films as this often gave reports on the progress of the war. In the village occasionally there was a film show at the Men’s Institute. We all sat around the covered billiard table with the screen at one end and the projector at the other end. When the programme finished someone would say the “King” and everyone stood and sang the National Anthem with gusto.

From Breage we could see, in the distance, barrage balloons flying from shipping in Falmouth Harbour and we could also see radar masts in the St Keverne area. When a cargo boat was moored in Porthleven Harbour, that also flew a barrage balloon which was visible from the village. There was a radar scanner at Trewavas Head near Rinsey which could be clearly seen from Tremearne Beach where we spent many happy hours in the summertime.
Without doubt the two events which brought home the reality of war was the arrival of evacuees and the US Army. Most of the evacuees in this locality were from Enfield, North London but there were a few from Bristol and Plymouth. I remember the evacuees arriving by bus, one evening, from various railway stations with their labels, gas masks and strange accent. They assembled in the school playground and were then taken to various families to their homes. Eventually they had all gone apart from one lad who was left crying in the corner. This was one of the saddest things I had ever witnessed and I shall always remember. Our neighbour Mrs Pryor took pity on him and he stayed with her family for some time. I met him again after 60 years when he attended his brother’s funeral in Breage Church in 2002. His brother had stayed in Cornwall after the war and married a local girl.

Most of the evacuees were taught at the Methodist Sunday School, a little bit further up the hill from the day school. This meant that the iron gates and railings were saved from being taken for scrap, unlike those at the Chapel nearby. They are still there today. Some evacuees also attended the day school and I was in a mixed class taught by one of their teachers for a time. At the end of the war a few remained in Cornwall and married local folk. I still correspond with several and was visited by two in 2003 whilst they were on holiday in the area. They all remembered how they enjoyed Cornish pasties. Possibly the most famous was Stuart Randall from Plymouth who was Labour MP for Hull West for some years and later became Lord Randall of St Budeaux.

Several members of the Women’s Land Army were lodging in the village and were involved in catching rats on farms in the area.

The main sources of information during the war years were newspapers, and of course the wireless as it was known as then. The news bulletins were always introduced in the following way: “This is London. Here is the 6 o’clock news and this is Stuart Hibberd, Alvar Lidell or John Snagge reading it”.

Detailed reports from war correspondents at the front were provided by Richard Dimbleby, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, Chester Wilmot and Stewart McPherson. In contrast enemy propaganda was provided nightly by Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) with his drawling voice saying: “Germany calling, Germany calling”.

On the lighter side, I used to enjoy Tommy Handley’s ITMA — “It’s that Man again” and of course Mrs Mopp — “Can I do you now Sir”. I also recall Workers Playtime and the music of Joe Loss and his Orchestra and the wonderful sound of the Glen Miller Band, especially the tunes ‘American Patrol’ and ‘In the Mood'.

The American soldiers in the area from the 29th Infantry Division were accommodated in various buildings other than their camps. Many were at Praa Sands. I can recall seeing the first jeep driving along the main road with its’ hood flapping in the breeze and also the large ten wheel lorries with which I was also impressed. One day whilst watching troops on exercise walking through the village complete with helmets, guns and kit one of them threw me a piece of Beechwood chewing gum. I was so excited that I kept the green wrapper for years.

Every Friday a dance was held in the school to entertain the troops and on Saturday morning I used to help my Grandpa tidy up and I loved collecting the Lucky Strike, Chesterfield and Camel empty cigarette packets.

On Remembrance Sunday the local British Legion, Home Guard, ARP and Red Cross would assemble at Star Corner in the village and march with the British Legion Standard to lay wreaths at the War Memorial and then attend a service in Church. In 1943 they were joined by the Americans who arrived in their jeeps, parking on the green in front of Mr Gundry’s carpenter’s shop. After the ceremony, a lady from the Red Cross could not start her car, so the soldiers gently drove one of their jeeps up behind and pushed her off to a flying start!

My wife lived at Rame Cross which is on the Helston/Falmouth road during the war and recalls how the US army camped in the fields between Edgcumb and the Half-Way House pub. Several coloured soldiers sang in the Edgcumb Chapel choir and also visited her home where her mother accompanied them on the piano as they sang with the family. For security reasons the soldiers were not allowed to correspond with home prior to D-Day. So when one of the soldier’s wives gave birth to a baby girl, my mother-in-law sent a dress as a present and assured the family that her husband was safe. I have recently tried to establish if these soldiers survived the war and to contact the families but as the coloured soldiers were not in the 29th Infantry Division I have had no success so far.

I cannot recall any live action at sea or in the air, but there were several crashes in the vicinity. On the 26th October 1940 a Spitfire of 234 Squadron made a forced landing in a field above Tremearne Beach. Fortunately the pilot was unharmed. At 4 o’clock on 26th September 1941, an explosion was heard in the village and we eventually discovered that this was caused by an aircraft crashing on Tregonning Hill near Ashton. A Beaufort from 217 Squadron based at St Eval had crashed in dense fog, returning from a mission in the Bay of Biscay. Sadly all the crew was killed. Recently the Balwest Heritage Society has dedicated a stone memorial at the crash site, on which the names of the crew are engraved. I was one of those to attend the ceremony.

On 27th May 1942 a Spitfire from 130 Squadron based at Perranporth crashed in a field on the outskirts of Breage. I was in the school playground, with others at the time and remember seeing the smoke and flames. Sadly the pilot was killed and the body taken by local men to the parish mortuary near the entrance to the Church. My recent research revealed that the pilot is buried at Illogan cemetery, near Redruth, with many other military personnel. I have regularly corresponded with his wife, who is now 90, and each Christmas I receive a card from her.

On 2 June 1943 a Sunderland flying boat from 413 RAAF made a forced landing on the beach at Praa Sands. It had been badly damaged in a dog-fight over the Bay of Biscay when one of its crew was killed and was attempting to reach its base in Pembroke Dock, South Wales. I recall seeing it from Rinsey Head the next day.

Two airfields were constructed in the Helston area during the war: RAF Predannack and RNAS Culdrose and it was quite common to see the lorries of the contractors Wimpey, McAlpine and Laing passing through the village and sometimes parked outside the Queens Arms Pub. No drink driving restrictions in those days.

After 60 years I am surprised how these war-time events are still so clear in my mind. Being so young at the time probably has something to do with it. It is a period of my life which seems to be more interesting the older I get.

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