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15 October 2014
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Memories of 1939/40

by Shell Pensioners

Contributed by 
Shell Pensioners
People in story: 
Brian Lewis/John Skelsey/Hammonds
Location of story: 
West of England & Wales
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 January 2005

WW2 Wartime Stories

Brian Lewis January 2005 Formerly Shell Employee

Memories of World War II
I was nearly 5 years old in September 1939 - so that was 15 years before I joined Shell in 1954! Nevertheless, I remember the start of the war well, perhaps because the incidents of the time greatly alarmed my parents, and their fear and bewilderment filtered down to my own infant imagination.

Returning from Dunkirk, my godfather, John Skelsey, - I think an officer in the Highland Division at the time - came to my parents’ house in Lilliput, Dorset and advised them to get away from the south-east coast as invasion was imminent. That of course is hearsay for me as a five year old! My mother and I accompanied my father on his next working trip to Devon before leaving for south Wales where my father had family.

In the hotel in Plymouth, I was put to bed at 6pm on the top floor, and my mother went down to dine with my father. At around 8 pm, a German bomber dropped a “land-mine” by parachute and it exploded nearby. My mother rushed upstairs and later said she could not find me among the debris of the top floor. She eventually found me fast asleep under the blanket at the foot of the bed: Even today, 65 years later, I am a sound sleeper and not much wakes me! This is where my memory begins!

I remember being picked up in the reassuring arms of my mother and puzzled why I could see the stars through the roof rafters of a hotel still reeling from the blast. Very clearly from the arms of my mother, I see the stairs over her shoulder stretching up into the darkness and to the sky above as we descend! As we pass the bay window on the stairs, a great stuffed swan, greatly to my surprise, begins to totter from the right and fall behind my mother. I see it today as clear as it can be. That must be a true memory as no one else saw that happen!

Later we moved to a farm outside Plymouth to be away from the city. One evening at bedtime, my mother hearing a plane in the distance, opened the window and said something like “Look! Here come the boys of the Royal Air Force”. With my mother standing at the open window with me in her arms, I saw a Messerschmidt coming towards us at tree top level and passing directly over us at a few hundred feet. I still see clearly the large black crosses on the underside of the wings. My mother was terrified and hastily closed the window. I suppose I must thank that German pilot for not strafing that farm-house and ending the life of one small boy. Fate is sometimes strange.
Odd how some memories are more important than others! Apart from these small incidents of war, what fascinated me about Devon were the wild strawberries in the woods and the newts swimming in the streams. It must have been the autumn of 1939 and harvest time. I still retain that sense of proportion today!

We moved next to Hereford to stay with friends for some months — the Hammonds, I think I have little memory of my time at the local (girls?) school. The major incident was the hatching of a clutch of eggs in my pocket during class, which I had removed from a birds-nest. 1940 must have been a time when small boys were still encouraged to be naturalists after the manner of Darwin!

My final memory of those times in 1939/1940 is the burning of the Milford Haven oil refinery after an attack by German aircraft. I remember the silent awe combined with sadness of the adults as they stood on the cottage lawn in the village of Templeton, some miles away on a hill, as we watched the huge plumes of black smoke curling away up into the sky from the oil tanks. Their world was vanishing before their eyes.

Why did a 5 year-old remember those incidents of war so clearly? I think it is because the adults of those times were shocked and awed, not only by individual instances of bombing, but by the advent of a second world war sll within 25 years. That powerful emotion and presentiment of danger communicated itself very powerfully to the five year-old that once I was. Five years of war and growing up were to follow, but 1939/1940 left a lasting imprint on my mind.

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The Blitz Category
Childhood and Evacuation Category
Devon Category
Hereford and Worcester Category
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