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Frensham at War

by Trevor G Hill

Contributed by 
Trevor G Hill
People in story: 
Location of story: 
Frensham Surrey
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
06 December 2003

At the time of the outbreak of the 1939-45 war my family lived in Haslemere and my father worked at my uncle’ timber yard. As he was crippled with arthritis it was not a very suitable employment and in fact when war broke out he was in a London hospital receiving treatment for his condition. As the hospital was being evacuated he decided to come home to our flat in Haslemere and it was clear that he needed to get work that was indoors. I remember him arriving very tired because the trains from London were also full of evacuees and soon after we heard our first air-raid warning.

When my father left school he had been apprenticed as a grocer and then worked for a number of large grocery and provision merchants such as Liptons, ending up as a manager for the International Stores. However he had been out of work in the depression and in 1936 we moved from Sussex to Haslemere, my mother’s home town. In late 1939 a friend of my mother’s, decided to sell her business in Frensham, a general store. Frensham is a parish and village between Haslemere and Farnham, and is located on the edge of a very large area of open heath-land called Frensham Common.

So my father rented a rather run down shop with fittings that could have gone back to the Edwardian era. He had virtually no capital and I believe that my mother's friend allowed him to purchase the business over the next few years. He used to recall how his brother had sent him a five pound note and how he took it to Kingham’s the grocery wholesaler in Farnham to start an account with them. They accepted him as a customer and throughout the war years he built up a considerable business with them and with other merchants in the area.

My father was a keen handyman and he soon set about refurbishing the shop’s fittings with new shelves and a modern looking front to the counters. Being a trained grocer he was keen to build up a delivery service of what he called ‘orders’. These were made up in our kitchen behind the shop from the lists sent in by his customers. An errand boy on a trade bicycle delivered the orders with a large carrier on the front and in times of heavy snow on a sledge. Behind the shop there was a three-story building that was used to store some furniture but the top story was a play area where my father built a model railway for my younger brother and myself.

Next to the kitchen was a rather dark room in which the staircase led to the bedrooms. It was in this room that we sheltered when there were air raids. As we had no bathroom it also served us on bath-night when water was heated in a gas boiler in the kitchen and the tin bath brought in and placed before the fire. Two steps led down from this room to what was called the ‘lounge’. It was the main living room and led direct into the shop. This was quite a large room with a bay window. In the centre was the dining table and next to it the piano on which stood a radio set, our telephone and my fathers tin hat. By the fireplace were the sideboard and two armchairs.

Upstairs there were three bedrooms, the large one over the shop where my
parents slept and the one next to it where at various times my brother or I slept. Eventually after fitting up an electric light it was the back bedroom that became my domain and in here I had a bedside two-valve radio and the walls were
covered with maps, as I was very keen on geography. In fact at school it was the only subject that really fired my imagination. I did spend some time in the
second room on the front of the house when I was ill for six months with mumps and measles which turned to pneumonia. I remember lying in bed feeling very ill and looking at the pattern that the Valor oil-stove used to make on the ceiling.

Whilst we lived in Frensham the war was a constant feature of our lives. Rationing had been introduced and my father being from a strict Christian family
insisted that we should only get the same food ration as his customers, this included my limited sweet ration. My father also took a firm line against the black-market. He used to recall how when rationing began all customers had to register with a particular grocer. One of his customers, who lived in a very big house, said to my father ‘Mr Hill I do not mind how much I pay as long as I get what I want’. My father stood up as straight as he could and replied ‘Madam you can take your custom elsewhere, my brothers are not fighting for the likes of you!’ My father’s two brothers both served in the army, one in the Royal Corps of Signals in North Africa and the European campaign through Italy, the other in the Tank Regiment in the rain forests of Burma.

Under the rationing system each customer was supplied with a ration book which had within it pages of small tickets for different types of food, and some pages were called ‘points’, these were used for buying tinned goods when they were available. The points had to be cut out of the book when the customer made a purchase and every so often these had to be counted and bundled and sent to the local Ministry of Food office, a task I did not like. Sometimes people visited their families in Frensham and brought a temporary ration card which they registered at our shop. Depending upon how many customers were registered with my father, plus any temporary ration cards and ‘point’s he had collected controlled the amount of food he could purchase from the wholesalers like Kinghams. From any food listed on a temporary ration card that had not been bought, plus a small allowance made by the authorities for waste, my father gradually built up a small surplus of rationed goods like cheese and butter. Instead of offering this surplus on the black market he used to supply extra items to his customers for special family occasions such as a family wedding. I can remember him saying 'And now Mrs ---- how would you like a half a pound of butter for your daughter's wedding?' You can just imagine the joy on the customer's face at such news.

Although my father was too crippled with arthritis to serve in the forces he became the chief fire-warden for the village of Frensham. I remember he was called out on many occasions and once had to call the police as he suspected that lights being shown in one of the large houses were being used to guide the German bombers towards Aldershot which was not far away to the north. The German bombers would have needed some guidance as the two artificial lakes called Frensham Ponds had been drained so that they could no longer be used as markers from the air. One night the Germans bombed Aldershot and hit an ammunition train, the constant explosions this caused was the noisiest night I remember from the war years.

Air raid alerts were commonplace although most of the German bombers flew over us to other targets. At night the sky was lit up with searchlights and ack-ack fire, and when Southampton and London were raided we could see the glow of the fires in the sky. Sometimes German bombers made attacks in daylight and if there was an air-raid warning we used to go to the air raid shelters in the schoolyard. Even today the smell of damp concrete still reminds me of the days when we did go to the shelters in the schoolyard of Lower Bourne. As boys we knew all the types of aircraft both German, British and American and if one was forced to land in the vicinity we used to go and hunt for it on our bicycles. A Hurricane with a damaged tail-plane once landed in a field on the road from Frensham to Dockenfield much to the consternation of the farmer who was ploughing the field.

When the flying bomb attacks began I used to watch them from my bedroom
window as they passed across the sky. One morning a flying bomb landed in the woods not far away and our garden was showered with pine needles. On another occasion I was woken with a very large bang and, on opening the window, I heard what sound like a train rushing towards us. It was the only V2 that landed in our locality although I do not know where it hit the ground; the sound like the train was in fact the rocket motors that were heard after the actual explosion.

Apart from the war in the air we were also very conscious of the war on the ground especially in 1940 as we were close to the second line of defence. One night the church bells rang, which was the invasion warning. It was a false alarm and on the next day, a Sunday, my father took me to Frensham parish church for the morning service, a rather unique event for a boy who had been brought up in Strict Baptist chapels!

Many luxuries were not available during the war but my father bought a special canister for making ice cream. It was rather like a large vacuum flask with an opening at both ends. The ice cream mixture was poured into the central section at the top and then the canister was reversed and ice and salt packed in from the bottom. The ice was collected from Mac Fisheries’ shop in Farnham and it was my job to bring it home on the bus in a canvas bag. On one hot summer afternoon when I was selling ice cream and fizzy drinks, like Tizer, from a table outside of our shop a column of army trucks pulled up. The soldiers were not like any we had seen before, they were the Canadians, and my little stall was soon totally sold out. We soon learnt that the Canadian army was to be stationed in and around our village and that they were to take over from the British troops the large area of Frensham Common for manoeuvres. One contingent had a large camp in the pine trees on Gong Hill and another was stationed in and around Pierpoint House.

The Canadians were soon great friends of the boys and girls in Frensham
especially when they were able to supplement our sweet ration with ‘candies’. Apart from lorries these Canadian troops were equipped with Bren Gun carriers and Sherman tanks and the petrol pumps at the garage opposite our shop was their refuelling depot. After a day exercise on Frensham Common a great queue of vehicles and tanks used to form up along the road from Millbridge and the friendly Canadians would give us rides along the road. I was very lucky when one day a tank commander asked if I would like to ride in the turret of his Sherman tank. Apparently he knew my father and so when we arrived at the garage he asked if I had had my pocket money and when I replied ‘No’ he trained the gun on our shop and said we should demand it early that week!

One day I was suddenly called home from my school in Lower Bourne and told to go and join the school-children at Frensham School to witness a special event. A smart dais with chairs had been set up by the War Memorial opposite the school playground and soon some official cars arrived and out stepped the king and queen. They had come to watch a mock battle staged by the Canadian troops and the king was taken for a ride into the battlefield in a Bren-gun carrier. Some of the Canadian troops were dressed in German uniforms and we all cheered when a German despatch rider came to the dais and surrendered to the royal party.

Watching military manoeuvres at first hand was great fun for a boy between the ages of eight and thirteen but what was more dangerous was to walk over the common afterwards when we would find live ammunition. However we soon learnt the difference between the explosives and smoke mortars or canisters. We marked the former with sticks and reported their position, but took the smoke canisters home to cut open and get out the powder. On one occasion I packed some of this powder into the metal tube under my bicycle saddle and then lit it. What I did not realise was that it would make the metal virtually red-hot and so I could not sit down and ended up peddling from Shortfield Common to Millbridge laying a smoke screen behind me through the village. Some boys even collected live ammunition and on one occasion we lit a fire by a pine tree in the field below the recreation ground and threw into it a clip of live bullets. We all hid behind the tree until all the bullets had exploded (the last time I visited Frensham in 1970 the tree was still there).

Just down the road from our shop lived an old soldier from the First World War. He showed us how to take live bullets apart and extract the cordite that we could then use to make fireworks. How none of us were killed I will never know! He was also in the Home Guard and when they were first formed as the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) they used to drill with broom handles in the space in front of the garage opposite our shop. Eventually they were issued with rifles and it was known that the old soldier was a crack shot as he had been a sniper in the
First World War. Before the Home Guard had received their rifles he had come to my father and asked for a cheese-wire, with this deadly weapon he said he would have garrotted any German soldier he came across!

Then the war in Europe was over and we were to celebrate on VE Day. A street party was arranged for the following day to be held in the Recreation Ground and we boys and girls built a large bonfire on Shortfield Common. Sadly that night some people who had celebrated too much at our local pub 'The Hollybush' set light to our bonfire. This so incensed the men of the village that the next day they built a much larger bonfire by cutting branches from the nearby wood and with old engine oil and tyres from the garage we ended up with a wonderful D+1 day bonfire celebration.

After the war Italian prisoners were stationed near our village and used as a labour force to clear the undergrowth which had grown up during the war period in what had been Frensham Ponds. When they were refilled they became the place where many of us learnt to swim.

For a boy in Frensham the wartime was a period of great excitement and fun, times of sadness, and strange events. Excitement when we used to watch our brave lads of the RAF tackling great swathes of German Bombers. Fun when watching the Canadian troops practising for D-Day on our commons, I have often wondered how many of them may still remember their days in Frensham. Sadness when we learnt of fathers of our school-friends being killed and especially when we learnt that one German plane had machine-gunned children in a nearby school playground, although we were not told where it was. Strange events like the day when in class I disturbed our teacher by pointing up at the high classroom windows for I could see German bombers and ack-ack fire. As there had been no air-raid warning and no time to get to the shelters our teacher made us all get under our desks. By the end of the war I was travelling to secondary school in Guildford catching the bus from Farnham along the Hog’s Back. Sometimes we used to see the vapour trails of V2 rockets on the eastern horizon in the early morning sun.

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