- Contributed by
- People in story:
- John T N Heygate
- Location of story:
- Slough, Bucks & Rushden, Northants
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 June 2004
The 'Lead Up' to World War Two
During the latter part of 1938 I recall that my father took my sister and myself to the home of a civil servant friend's house to be fitted with Gas Masks. This seemed a rather sinister activity. The all black Masks emitted a strong and indeed obnoxious smell of rubber. The whole exercise could be described as grim. The masks were supplied in a strong cardboard box, which were later covered in a buff coloured canvas carrying case, supplied by a local shop. Some weeks later we had to return to the house located in 'The Grove' for the masks to have a circular anti smoke device? taped on.
I was seven years of age and had been given a brief overview as to what was in store for us. There was a general feeling of fear and uncertainty with films and radio reports describing the air raids and carnage experienced by people involved in the Spanish Civil War. Here, huge circular grey air raid sirens were erected on pylons and tall buildings.
Our home was a small flat located above my father's radio & television shop
G Case & Sons in High Street, Slough. He held the coveted Bush, Murphy & McMichael dealerships. Eminent BBC newsreader John Snagge & the Royal household at Windsor Castle were on his list of regular customers.
My parents decided that 'The children' should be evacuated. By this time war had been declared & it was considered that Rushden, Northants, the hometown of my grandparents would be a safer place.
Their accommodation consisted of the larger half of a well-appointed country house 'Moorlands' Kimbolton Road. It was located opposite to the home of John White, a close friend of my grandfather's who had built up one of the largest Boot & Shoe manufacturing businesses in the country.
I attended a state run; mixed junior school in a small town called Higham Ferris & used to walk the two miles to school. Air raid shelters had not yet been built & my only memories were of Nancy the very attractive young daughter of the local doctor! & also the free issue of chocolate wafer biscuits given to augment the usual one third pint bottles of milk at break times.
Quality of life at Moorlands started to deteriorate as rationing & other restrictions took hold. The blackout was a major issue & windows had buff coloured tape criss crossed over them to reduce the size of what could be glass fragments in the event of damage caused by bomb blast.
Having always been interested in guns, I was delighted when the local branch of the Home Guard constructed a .303 practice rifle range in a nearby disused gravel pit. Spent cartridge cases proved to be valuable bounty at school.
My parents being associated with the radio & television trade had in 1938 provided Moorlands with a large console model Baird television set. There were some twenty controls to adjust in order to obtain 'reasonable' black & white picture which was broadcast from Alexandra Palace, London, transmitting for just a couple of hours each day.
In order to achieve this 'miracle' my father's engineers had travelled from Slough to erect a huge wooden aerial tower on the roof of the house. However the ten by eight inch screen was now blank since the BBC shut down all transmissions soon after war was declared.
The rural setting amongst the leather factories and tanneries created a very boring environment.
My grandfather, Frank Lowick Heygate, a retired Bank Manager decided to try & find something to interest the 'new addition' to the household. Being creative & useful with my hands, a trip to the home of one of his friends proved eventful when I met the teenage son, a competent & keen model maker. Basic carpentry tools (including a spokeshave) were purchased & I set to work building models, using a garden outhouse as a temporary workshop. The models had to be shaped from solid wood. Plastic was unknown. My father regularly acquired bundles of softwood off cuts from a factory situated on Slough trading estate that was making Mosquito Fighter Bomber Aircraft; lots of wood used in the construction.
Following a period of some twelve months, it was decided 'the children' return home to Slough. The seventy-mile journey was made in a very smelly old Austin Ten Van, this being the shop delivery vehicle. My father's private car, a grey soft-top Opel Kadette, had been 'laid up' in a friend's garage showroom - for the duration?
The Austin Van ran on commercial - red - petrol since white private fuel was in very short supply. Using red dyed fuel in a non-registered commercial vehicle - could justify a jail sentence.
Home at last. I was elated to be back amongst my parents & friends plus the business environment that I had grown up in.
The word that springs to mind is 'change'. My father Dick Heygate, proudly showed me the underground air raid shelter that he & members of his staff had constructed in the small garden area behind the shop & flat at Two Grove Parade. You lifted a heavy corrugated iron door & climbed down some steps in the entrance that was lined with six inches of reinforced concrete. Inside were wooden slatted bunk beds & tea brewing impedimenta. At the far end was an escape hatch.
A prominent smell of damp soil mixed with paraffin fumes from the unlit hurricane lantern pervaded the scene. I felt reassured, but took a few minutes to thoroughly investigate the escape hatch!
Near to the shelter were several sheds housing the radio & electrical repair workshops & battery charging benches; a proportion of radio sets still do not connect to mains power.
Two of the sheds now contained Myford Centre Lathes, drilling, milling & grinding machines. My father, having served an apprenticeship in the latter part of World War 1, had decided to devote his energies to the development of a small, engineering business manufacturing components for aircraft & submarines. This new growth activity was based on the decline in radio shop sales i.e. no television; also the only new radio sets were of the government designed & controlled 'utility' variety.
My sister June went off to Halidon House private school & I attended Slough C of E Junior Boys School, known as Kent's College.
The brick built school air raid shelters were installed above ground & nearly every day involved time spent in them with communal singing & chewing Horlicks tablets or... even oxo cubes. Sweet rationing was acute.
The huge bronze school bell was suspended in a tower, but remained silent. The sounding of bells indicated an invasion warning. Incidentally the customary toilet roll was by then a fairly rare item! Square pieces of newspaper held together by string often became the norm...
School classes were highly disciplined; lighting was mostly gas & heating by coke stoves. Corporal punishment - by cane - being the order of the day; my schoolwork improved considerably!
In the streets, trade vehicles owned by coal & corn merchants, Carter Paterson & others were mostly drawn by pairs of huge white & brown carthorses.
School boys in their spare time, myself included, tended allotment plots in the 'Dig for Victory' campaign & regularly went round collecting waste paper & scrap metal to be turned into valuable cash - destined for the Fish Shop, Cinema or Tizer supplier.
Whilst at 'Kent's College' (Tommy Kent being the highly competent headmaster) I became a member of the 'Cubs' & one day I had just set out from home - in uniform & carrying my gas mask - when, without warning, all hell let loose in the sky above. A German 'hit & run' aircraft had swept out of heavy clouds & commenced to strafe the High Street with its machine guns. Nearby, light Ack Ack Bofors guns opened up on the raider just as the sirens sounded. At this point a woman pedestrian grabbed hold of me & hurled me onto the safety? Of the London Drapery Store doorway. When the tumult died down, I looked up to see large panes of glass surrounding me.
During the next two years at school, I 'acquired' several interesting items. My leather handled sheath knife proved to be useful 'bounty' when I swapped it for a nice new, dark green hand grenade - minus the charge! Another swap was for a .32” Calibre American Revolver. It did however have a minor fault & was in a purse - presumably a small firearm suitable for a female.
Some twenty years later, I decided to dispose of the hand grenade during an 'Arms Amnesty'. Living in the Ascot/Bracknell area at the time I walked into Bracknell Police Station with the grenade in a plastic bag - firing lever & 'pin' firmly in place!
Noting that the duty officer appeared to be somewhat young & 'wet behind the ears',
I thought it prudent to explain that I had a Mills bomb in my bag - rather than place it in front of his nose on the desk.
Being a Sunday morning the silence was deafening!
John T.N. Heygate
19, Elm Court
Kent CT8 8LE
Tel: 01843 835305
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