- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mr. Gerald How
- Location of story:
- Tempsford, Cardington and Bedford, Bedfordshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 October 2005
Schoolboy wartime memories of Chalton, Bedfordshire Part Three — Family members in the Forces. Decoy airfield for Tempsford airfield. Working at Cardington. VE Day.
Part three of an oral history interview conducted with Mr. Gerald How by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.
“My two oldest brothers were much older and they were working, doing essential work on the farms. My brother, who was the driver went in the Forces - would be about the last couple of years I suppose before he went into the Forces and he went in the Army. He wanted to be a driver because he drove and they said, ‘No, he hadn’t enough driving experience!’ and yet he’d been driving for John Laings and the Air Ministry and he was put into the Infantry. I think it was about the day after ‘D’ Day he was helping with the landings just outside Caen in northern France and he and his pal, sharing this Bren gun firing and they used to take it in turns, they had to change over - one be loading and one be firing and they’d just changed over and his friend, his pal got killed. The shell had dropped right on the edge of the trench and my brother was lucky he got away with a burst eardrum. He vaguely remembers being carried on a stretcher but that was the end of that he came back to England but he was lucky to survive it, his experiences of ‘D’ Day landings.
One of my sisters was making the barrage balloons in the fabric shop and the other one was in the Drawing Office where they used to do the designing of the balloons and that. Towards the later part of the war they not only made barrage balloons but they also made tanks and guns of fabric. Blow up tanks and guns as decoys in Europe. On the Front Line they would be quite effective I suppose from the air.
Talking about decoys I well remember during the war there were such things as decoy airfields. We had one just outside Bedford on the way, just before you’d get to Great Barford. There used to be this brick building, shelter in a field, in the corner of a field at the side of the road and that was a RAF Decoy Airfield. The purpose of that was that, say for instance that Tempsford was operating that night and the German aircraft were coming over or where in the area, of course they had to have their lights on the runways and the airfield lit up for the planes coming in. They would switch on a decoy airfield which was lights around the fields that make it look from the air as if that was another aerodrome so that would distract the enemy aircraft away from the main airfield.
I remember as a group of boys we always used to meet at nights up at ‘The Guinea’ at the cross roads, sit around and this jeep coming up with some RAF Officers in it and one said, ‘Lads can you tell me where Great Barford is?’ ‘I said, ‘Oh, you want to look for the secret airfield do you?’ and they were shocked and amazed, they were really taken aback by it all because they didn’t expect anyone to know what it was you see. So we told him. We missed nothing during the war, us boys! And it was there at ‘The Guinea’, at the cross roads at Moggerhanger where I heard my first V1 bomb come over, the doodle bug. We heard it going across, the engine cut out and we dashed into the archway in ‘The Guinea’ pub there and the engine stopped and there was an explosion. The doodle bug landed near Great Barford apparently. That was the only V1 bomb that I ever heard of that came over this area. We definitely knew what it was and it was frightening. We knew what it was so we dashed into the archway in the pub for protection because we didn’t know where it was going to drop.
Yes, it was quite a sight these airfields being lit up at night. Because I remember coming back from Sandy, we used to go to the Victory Cinema at Sandy which also had the siren on top and coming back at night and seeing Tempsford lit up and it was like a city lit up at night, the runways and that. The airfields in those days weren’t as modern and updated as they are today with regards to landing navigation aids and lighting. Because the lighting in those days, there was a string of poles at the side of the river between Blunham and Great Barford and they had lights on those poles and it was the guiding light, the guiding lights to the runways. And they were some distance from the airfield. But you can imagine the task of erecting these poles and the lights running parallel to the river at Blunham there near the nurseries there. At nigh time it was quite impressive to see it lit up. You daren’t have any lights at all whatsoever in the house or anywhere, I mean if you saw a light you’d say, oh, he’s probably a spy.
I talk about ‘The Guinea’ at Moggerhanger but I mean during the war on the Sandy/Potton Road there was a very big fuel depot built. That was connected by pipeline from Southampton, all underground to there, to Sandy and then from there there were pipelines going out to airfields up the country. Massive thing it was really because one of the lads in the village was involved in painting the insides of the tanks and I mean the fuel depot is still there to this day. Apart from the pipelines going out to the airfields there were certain airfields that were not connected were fuel tankers would go out at nights and these tankers were all painted gray, coloured gray. I remember at ‘The Guinea’ there, at the cross roads seeing probably two of these tankers parked in the forecourt there, having a drink before on their way out somewhere. That was often seen. The Germans tried to bomb it actually one night, they dropped incendiary flares onto the — but I don’t think they did any damage at all but it was quite frightening because we could see it from where we were living, seeing these flares coming down. Also you could see, we used to go down the bottom of the farm yard and to look across and you could see the gun fire over London at nights when there was a raid on. That was quite a fantastic sight. So there is quite a lot of exciting memories but also some frightening times but for a young lad it was quite exciting.
A big difference between living in Moggerhanger and Bedford was really that you had more dances to go to. I went even in my younger days at Moggerhanger I remember having what they called a pin striped suit because they said I was quite a good little dancer in those days. We used to go to the village dances and that’s where we used to see all these brave airmen in their uniforms, with their wings and we thought they were heroes. Probably the next night they would be out on a mission, on bombing missions over Germany never to return again. Because I know one, he was related — he was my brother-in-law’s nephew, he was 19 years old and he was a printer at Sandy and Biggleswade and he was called up for the Air Force. He was a rear gunner in a Stirling bomber eventually and he was taking off from an airfield in Cambridgeshire to go on this bombing raid, a 19 year old and the plane just got airborne and crashed, exploded. And everybody was killed on board bar one Australian, a New Zealander he was found walking round the wreckage, he was paralysed all down one side and he is to this day. But Ron and that were just blown to pieces. Because they said when they were carrying the coffin, the coffin was much heavier than the body, so they’d obviously filled it up with bits and pieces. But that was sad, he was 19 years old. He went into the Air Force because his slightly older brother went missing - he was in the Air Force also but on a secret mission, he was missing at sea I think. Young Ron, I remember his mother telling us, he said, ‘Don’t worry Mum if I never come back, I shall be alright.’ And his younger sister, Joan, she went mad losing two brothers in the RAF, she went crazy.
A lot of places around Bedford and Tempsford being a very special aerodrome where these secret agents used to operate from and different places around Bedford where the agents would be staying. At Tempsford they had the Halifax, the Stirling bomber, Hudsons and Lysanders, Lysanders that would actually land. The Lysander which was a single engined aircraft and the Hudson which was a twin engined aircraft they both could land. Sometimes they got stuck in the mud and all sorts of things happened but it was quite a big aerodrome was Tempsford, one of the biggest I would say. It was originally built as a Bomber Station. But the story goes that Bomber Command didn’t want the airfield because it was next to the main railway line, London to Edinburgh which was a bit silly and there were adjacent hills around which wasn’t very good for aircraft loaded with bombs to take off. So it was Churchill’s idea that this Special Operations Executive Flight would be formed to go and drop these agents and supplies and some of them went very long distances.
When I came to Bedford, I’d been working for a farmer then I went to work for the Land Settlement Association as painter and decorator and then I came to Bedford and I went to Cardington and worked for the NAAFI, just before I went into the Air Force. There was a train from Bedford to Hitchin and I travelled on that but I usually cycled to work from Bedford. I lived in the centre of Bedford. I was working the Stores supplying the different, it was a very big Station was RAF Cardington, I think it had about five different what they call ‘Wings’ for recruits training, each different ‘Wing’ training them. So it had about five different NAAFIs so I used to work in the Stores and do the distribution of the food and that to the different NAAFIs which was quite interesting. This was just before I went into the Air Force in 1947. As I say, Cardington was a very busy and important RAF Station.
It had its own cinema, the Astra cinema. As I say it had a very well known dance hall as well. The ladies travelled on buses, they used to run buses from Bedford up to Cardington for the dances. I went to the dances as well of course. I remember too they used to have a lot of young Dutch airmen there as well, recruits, they’d come over from Holland. They used to tell you some interesting stories of about how they had been treated by the Germans, especially the Gestapo and the SS. They’d had fingernails pulled out and all sorts of horrible things to make them talk and they’d managed to escape to this country.
Of course, the Polish too, there were a lot of Polish airmen in this area. They were based at Tempsford as well, Polish Squadrons, they lost a lot of lives. In fact, the first Squadron at Thurleigh was a Polish Squadron in the RAF and then from there they went to the Middle East before the Americans arrived. A lot of Polish airforce of the Squadron were at Tempsford. In fact my sister started courting one of the Polish airmen but sadly he went back to Poland to her disappointment after the end of the war.
Well, apart from living in Bedford but I can’t remember what was actually happening to celebrate VE Day. I can remember all the flags flying and streamers and people rejoicing and parties in the street and that. We were in St.Paul’s Square and round there, yes. There were hundreds and hundreds of people everywhere. I mean even when I went in the Air Force after the war you still wore uniform you never wore civilian clothes at all you weren’t allowed to wear civilian clothes. There was still a lot of Military Police in Bedford, walking the streets. Yes, Bedford was a central focal point for military personnel in the surrounding areas to come and enjoy themselves in the evenings. There were a lot of clubs in Bedford, Officers Clubs and American Officers Clubs. On the corner of Goldington Road and Kimbolton Road there was an American Officers Club there in prefabricated buildings where the old Queen Mother visited. And then there was another American Club on the corner of Union Street and Bromham Road which is now a new block of flats before that there was a filling station and there was a building at the back of it and that was the American Forces Club. There was an Officers Club down the High Street and what is now Pilgrims Progress that was an American Club, above there, Longhurst and Skinner.”
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