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Child War Memories - the Early War Years.

by John Wright

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
John Wright
People in story: 
Robert Balmer; Harry Cole; Joan Osborne
Location of story: 
Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 July 2005

Setting the scene...
I was born at Vantorts Road, Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire in August 1935 and therefore was just over 4 years old when war was declared in September 1939. I cannot remember this at all but do remember the Summer holiday that I had with Mum and Dad in August that year at Clacton on Sea in Essex. I can vividly remember the Boarding House we stayed in for a week and even some of the guests. Similarly I can recall walking down to the sea front with my Father before breakfast and watching a Paddle Steamer arrive or depart from the pier. I expect like many children of that age, I had woken early each morning! I can also just remember the train journey from Sawbridgeworth to Bishop’s Stortford, from there onto the single line that went to Dunmow and on to Braintree, Colchester and Clacton. The line to Dunmow was closed to passenger traffic in the early fifties and then became one of the casualties of the Beeching axe in the Sixties. On the return journey we stopped off at Colchester where my Great Grandparents, on my Mother’s side of the family lived, close to the Station at the ‘bottom’ of North Hill. My Great Grandparents had been undertakers in Colchester. I can remember being fascinated by the goods trucks on the railway bridge over the North Hill Road being shunted, which were viewable from outside of the house. On the way back home my bucket and spade were left on the train.

Early war years...
The first thing I remember about the war was that we went each night to our neighbours cellar - this must now be into 1940 and after the ‘phoney war’ period, not that I can remember that at all. Our neighbours were Vantorts Farm, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Balmer. Much later I learned that Robert had come South from the Northeast to farm sometime in the very early 30's and my Father had purchased a part of his stack yard in 1933 to have our house built. Apparently in the year immediately following the house being built there were two hay stacks in the back garden, but I digress. The farmhouse was pretty old with timber framed walls and the exterior just lathe and plaster. However, it did have a substantial brick constructed cellar (walls and floor) which was fairly large and it had been temporarily equipped with basic furniture, including a couple of single beds. As cellars go it was ‘normal’ I expect - I can still smell the damp and musty atmosphere and the smell of candles and an oil lamp. Robert Balmer, being a farmer had a car and this had been adapted to carry a Siren. He was one of two car owners who toured the small town (a population of only around 3,000) to give the Alert and All Clear. This was my first knowledge of Red, Amber and All Clear that became so familiar. Of course as a farmer he also was the proud owner of a telephone and this had been extended to an extension in the cellar. He had a grey Sunbeam Talbot car, something he cherished and kept to well into the late fifties. In fact I actually drove it after my National Service 1953-55. Having received the Red Warning he would rush up the stairs and reverse the car out of the barn/garage and once on the road, start the wailing siren. Similarly of course the All Clear later. The only time I remember being frightened was when a stray bomb was dropped on Cambridge Road outside some council houses. Although about a mile away, the explosion was very loud. Three houses were demolished and several people and children lost their lives.

An evacuee from the East End...
Sometime in 1940 we took in an evacuee from the East End of London. All I can remember was that his name was Frankie. Frankie was not happy at all and only managed to stay about 2 months I think. All I remember of this was that he suddenly disappeared and later my parents were told he had caught a train and went back home. I seem to recall he was sent back but again this did not last - he was very unhappy. For some reason he was the only one who was billeted with us. The only other evacuee that I recall in the road was Joan Osborne from Clapton in East London. She was a couple of years older than me and was billeted with Mr. and Mrs Cole in the road. She stayed on throughout the war and was sort of reluctant to go home I think!

The Blitz...
My Father was in the Fire Service which he had joined as a volunteer in 1921. He was also the foreman of the local Malt Extract Company - H. A. and D. Taylor. With both these occupations he was exempt from call-up. Although things were beginning to get ‘organised’ it was not until 1941 that the National Fire Service (NFS) was formed. My Father spent very little time at home as he was at work for long hours each day and in 1940 was on duty all night at the local fire station. A little later it became one night on and one night off. The closest the local brigade came to the Blitz of London (Sawbridgeworth was just 25 miles from Charing Cross) was to be called into Leytonstone to replace the local brigade(s) who were then backing up the London brigade. They apparently dealt with several incidents while there on several occasions. In respect of my memories of this time the most vivid is going out of our house front gate in the dark and turning to look South towards London. The sky was lit up red for as far east and west as I could see. I can remember to this day feeling very scared and my Mother saying to me ‘come on we must get down in the cellar’!
Some more about Sawbridgeworth Fire Brigade can be found on my Web Site at:

A German plane flew very low...
Sawbridgeworth was home to a then very well known Building Company, Walter Lawrence and Son, who had their pretty large Joinery Works on the banks of the River Stort. The works were in fact sandwiched between the river and the main Cambridge Railway Line, about half a mile due East from our house. They became a major manufacturer of the fuselage of the Mosquito two engined aeroplane for DeHavilland at Hatfield. Obviously the Germans were aware of this and something else that sticks in my mind was, in the middle of the day a German plane flew very low over the works (South to North) without any resistance being shown at all. The siren had announced Red Alert and my Mother and I had been advised by Robert Balmer to take shelter in his cellar. However, before we got there and as we turned into the farm drive next to our house this dark black plane, on which one could easily see the swastikas, flew over the works only a few hundred feet above ground level. It was obviously a reconnaissance aircraft taking photographs as within a week or two the works were pelted with incendiary bombs and the part next to the river - pretty well of all wooden construction - was burnt out. Because the boundary of Hertfordshire and Essex is the river Stort and the joinery works was therefore just in Essex, the then ‘rules of engagement’ for Fire Brigades meant that the local brigade were unable to attend. Something that some members in the brigade who worked there could not get over for a number of years! As well as the Work’s destruction those who worked in that part lost all their precious tools.

All we could see was a wall of fire...
My maternal Grandfather worked at the Joinery Works as a Carpenter and Joiner and lived only a few hundred yards from the works, in Sheering Mill Road (now Sheering Mill Lane). He was fortunate in two respects, firstly the part of the works that he worked in largely escaped massive damage and he was able to recover his tools and secondly, the house that they lived in was also left undamaged. However, several of the houses in the ‘block’ and in the road did receive stray incendiaries but were dealt with successfully and little damage occurred. It is the only time in my life that I really saw and experienced my Mother being very very upset. From our house we overlooked the Joinery Works and on the night of the attack all we could see was a wall of fire. Knowing that my Grandparents house was only just beyond the works it looked as though they too were on fire! I suppose one should congratulate the German pilot(s) really, as their target aim was excellent! What was said afterwards though was that with the works neatly sandwiched between the river and railway they were easily guided towards their target - it was a clear moonlit night!

Water in the dugout...
The houses in Sheering Mill Road were, and still are, terraced. The couple living on one side of my Grandparents were both rather deaf. One of my jobs, when at the house when the siren went, was to knock on the wall to warn the neighbours. I knew that I had been successful when I got a knock back! Sheering Mill had a dugout in the then small field on the North side of the road immediately beyond the local general store. I can never remember it in use because it was for ever rather full of water! I can recall my Grandfather, with others, having borrowed the Walter Lawrence trailer Fire Pump to pump it out on a Sunday morning. I don’t know how many times this was done!

The home dugout, rats and all...
My Father dug a shelter in our back garden, I suppose this was early in 1940. It was certainly complete when the RAF were fending off the Luftwaffe as I can recall only going down in it a couple of times. Once, was on a Saturday afternoon when my Father was at home and there was a dog fight very high over us. I can remember seeing the vapour trails high in the sky and hearing the shooting. I was not allowed out to watch though and I never heard of any downed planes in the area. My Father, working at the local malt factory had access to wooden barrels. The timber slats from these were used to shore up the sides of the dugout. Corrugated Iron sheeting was used over the top and this covered with the earth from the hole in the ground. This arrangement was not very successful though as the local rats from the farm thought this was a haven and soon settled in behind the boarding! It was probably useable for less than 6 months really! Later, an indoor Morrison shelter was applied for and this meccano type affair was erected in the kitchen in place of the kitchen table. It was very strong though with a steel top supported by about 2" x 2" steel angles top and bottom with strong square steel mesh at the sides. Entry was through two of these wire panels which were sliding - we felt very safe in it. We ate our breakfast at it until the end of the war. After its disassembly it got used for all sorts of things including some of the main frame angles making the top of a cold frame for the garden. The sliding mesh panels made an excellent front to my rabbits hut cage and I still have some of the spacers that were used in the assembly.

...The story continues as: "Child War Memories - the later war years"

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