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- Kent Libraries- Shepway District
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- 08 August 2003
This is an extract from the memoirs of Ivor Bail, added to the site with his permission by Byron Whitehead of the Folkestone Heritage team.
Evacuation: South East England to South Wales 1939 - 1942
On the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939, I was on the beach at Folkestone in Kent with our evacuee, Gordon Cottle. He and his school friends had been evacuated from London a few weeks earlier to what was considered the safety of the south coast of England, when the threat of war was fast becoming reality.
It was a fine, sunny day and we were enjoying our morning out. Suddenly the air raid sirens began to sound. Unbeknown to us, war had been declared! An unidentified aircraft in the Channel had been picked up on the Radar Defence System. Although we didn't understand the seriousness of the situation, our instinct told us to make for home.
Throughout that year, there had been many preparations made and instructions issued on procedures in the event of air raids by enemy bombers. Most people expected to see the sky full of big black aircraft, heading for London. That day, nothing happened, and it turned out to be a false alarm.
But things did begin to happen in the early summer of 1940. On 28 May, Belgium capitulated and the French army began to lose ground. The south cost of England was beginning to look unsafe, and the government decided to send the London evacuees to safer places, and to evacuate all other children from the south of England.
That decision was soon justified, as the French surrendered and our army was pushed back to the French coast and trapped on the beaches in the area of Dunkirk. The evacuation of our troops coincided with the evacuation of the schoolchildren to other parts of the country. Here the railways played a vital role, conveying the exhausted troops to regimental bases for re-organisation, and many children to South Wales - all at the same time, and within a few days at the beginning of June 1940.
The evacuation of my school, Christ Church, took place on Sunday 2 June 1940, along with other schools from the town. The evacuation was not compulsory, but only a few children remained behind. We were asked to assemble in Radnor Park, a recreational area adjacent to the main railway station.
So it was in company with fellow pupils I turned up, complete with gas mask, small bundle of clothes and ration card, with a brown label attached to my jacket bearing my name and address, school, and identity number. Nobody knew were our final destination was to be.
To me it was somewhat of an adventure. To my mother, I have since realised, it must have been like a dreadful nightmare. She did not accompany me onto the station platform, where there was so much congestion, but arranged to wave goodbye below a nearby archway over which the train would travel. As it did so, I waved farewell to her - a lone figure and anxious mum. It must have been very emotional for her - she had no idea where I was going, or even if we would ever meet again. My father was unable to accompany her as he was required under emergency regulation to register for defence work, and had left home early that morning for Romney Marsh, where gangs of men were employed erecting wooden poles intended to destroy enemy planes carrying troops, should they attempt to land.
So began a long train journey on a hot summer day, all the way to South Wales. On the journey we saw notices in the gardens of houses that backed onto the railway track, messages to the defeated troops saying, 'Good luck Boys', 'Welcome Home', 'We're not beat yet' and even 'Throw out your foreign coins here'.
On many station platforms, WVS (Women's Voluntary Services) and Salvation Army ladies waited with trestle tables laden with sandwiches, cakes, drinks and cigarettes, all provided for the refreshment of the bedraggled and blood-stained soldiers.
Arriving in Wales
Late that afternoon our train arrived at Chepstow in Monmouthshire and we were conducted from the station, through the town, to a drill hall in the main street. It was very hot and sunny and once inside the grounds of the drill hall, we were really glad to receive some rolls and soft drinks while arrangements continued for our transfer, by bus, to our final and still unknown destination.
Eventually, coaches from the Red and White bus company arrived to take us on the last leg of our journey. Turning out of the main street, we were soon on our way passing through St Arvans and driving alongside Chepstow racecourse. There were no longer any horses to be seen here, as the racecourse had been requisitioned for use as an airfield - later, at the end of the war, it was a prisoner of war camp.
The journey continued - we were heading towards Tintern. None of us knew more than that we were now in South Wales. Sign posts and place names throughout the country had been removed in case of invasion. The first thing we saw on entering Tintern was, of course, the abbey appearing to our right, nestling close to the river Wye and bathed in sunshine. A few minutes later, our bus drew up outside the village hall, and we found ourselves being shepherded inside.
I suppose there was about 20 of us from class seven of Christ Church. The children from other classes went elsewhere to nearby villages. I remember standing in a line next to Kenneth, my friend, feeling hot, tired and somewhat unsettled. The long journey, just undertaken, left me slightly bewildered. Was it all a dream?
Standing opposite us in the hall was quite a large group of villagers. These people had agreed to take us into their homes and become our foster parents. They had, previously, signed the necessary forms and stated their preference for boys or girls. Soon a rather awkward process of selection began, and after, watching, waiting and wondering. My friend Kenneth and I found ourselves being paired up and being led along by a tall, kindly-looking gentleman, Mr Ware, the village postman. At that moment, to use the official term, he had become our foster father. Waiting outside, no doubt very interested to see what we looked like, were two of Mr Ware's daughters, Maureen and Barbara.
We all set off through the village, Kenneth and myself clutching our gas masks, Mr Ware with his post office bike, and our few belongings strapped on it. Maureen rode her cycle slowly, while Barbara walked alongside. Along the way, one or two villagers watched with good-natured curiosity from their front doors, as they noted the wartime addition to their postman's family.
Arriving at Prospect Cottage, our new home, Kenneth and I were greeted by our foster mum, Mrs Ware, who soon made us welcome. Little did I know I was to spend some of the happiest days of my life in my short stay in her home. The cottage certainly turned out to be a 'good prospect'.
Living in Tintern
I awoke the next morning and looked out of the window to a very peaceful scene. The river Wye was drifting silently by, glistening in the sunshine, a slight mist lifting from its waters. I had never really seen a river like this before, and I was impressed by the tranquillity of it all. The scene was in complete contrast to the urgency of the days before, when we left Folkestone to the sound of heavy gunfire across the Channel.
That morning we returned to the village hall, where our headmaster handed us all postcards with strict instructions to write home with our new addresses. We went on to the village school, to a classroom set aside for our use. Desks were taken and postcards written.
Mr Jelly, the local headmaster, made arrangements with our headmaster, Mr Hoskins, for our class to use the school facilities, which worked very well considering the extra numbers involved. Local children and evacuees soon started to get to know each other. We soon found out how their way of life differed. Accents, for one thing, were very different. The local lads' greeting, I found, was 'Ow-be', not 'Watcher' as we said in Kent.
Gradually we settled in to our new surroundings. I walked to school and back every day with Ken and Barbara (I think Maureen cycled). The distance was well over a mile each way, and we had to go to and fro at lunchtime (12 to 2pm) - no school dinners in those days!
In the light summer evenings we played 'long ball' in the roadway outside Prospect Cottage (no traffic then). It was a game I'd not heard of before but it was good fun. In the winter evenings we played cards, usually whist, by the light of oil lamps (only the pubs had generators for electric light) and everything stopped on Saturday evenings for the favourite radio show - 'Happi Drome' with comedian Harry Corris and his two stooges, Enoch and Ramsbottom. Later on in the war ITMA became the favourite, with comedian Tommy Handly (ITMA being an abbreviation for 'It's That Man Again').
On Sunday evenings, the BBC news commenced with the playing of the national anthems of France, Belgium and Denmark, the fallen countries at that time. Anthems of other nations when overthrown were added. As the weeks went by, eventually there were too many anthems to continue the practice as Europe had been engulfed.
Church organ boy
One requirement by our school was to attend the local church on Sunday morning, and like all the others I found this quite tedious. The sermon was always long and uninteresting, and difficult to follow. This fact was borne out by a browse through most hymn books. They contained drawings and witticisms written on the blank back pages, by anonymous authors - some likenesses of the preacher being remarkably accurate. Budding artists in the village maybe?
One day an opportunity arose which gave me the chance to opt out of the morning services. A paid volunteer was needed to pump the church organ, and I offered myself for the position. I got the job, for payment of two shillings and sixpence a month.
I pumped the organ for morning services at the church by the river, and most Sunday evenings at the church on the hill, the other end of the village. Services alternated between the two. The church by the river was easy pumping. I would stand behind the organ in the vestry and operate a handle up and down, thereby filling the bellows so that the organist could play. Just above the handle hung a lead weight. On a long string, notches on the wooden partition marked the volume of air in reserve. Should the weight fall below a certain mark, lack of air would distort play and ultimately terminate it.
I must confess, I was unable to resist the temptation to experiment with this device. I gave the organist a few tense moments, prompting him to frantically rattle the foot pedals, signalling an urgent need for air. During the sermon I sat outside the vestry door, secretly smoking and listening for a signal call of the pedals.
At the church on the hill the organ bellows leaked rapidly, and constant serious pumping was required to keep ahead of the leak - no time existed for schoolboy pranks. Intervention from above maybe? Left the organist reigning supreme!
The local characters
Two well-known characters in the village at that time were Mr Floydd and Old Bill. Mr Floydd was an artist, often found near the riverbanks with his easel and oil paints, expertly painting the scenery. Always good for a chat, he was a very interesting gentleman, a mine of information - and a successful artist, with paintings of merit accepted and hung in the Royal Academy of Art.
Completely different, the other well-known character was Old Bill the village tramp. He popped up around the village, mostly outside the abbey, to entertain (fast dwindling) visitors with musical interludes on his harmonica and bone clappers. Bill lived in a cave not far from the abbey on the road to Chepstow. Various stories existed explaining the reason he had adopted this lifestyle, but who knows how true they were?
Life back in Folkestone
Back in Folkestone, my parents were experiencing the hazards of the Battle Of Britain. Instructions to civilians had been issued, ordering their evacuation at short notice, leaving the town in the hands of the military. My parents kept a case packed with essentials behind the front door, ready for such an event. Invasion seemed imminent.
In Tintern, the Local Defence Volunteers were formed after a nationwide appeal. They paraded in the village hall (what an asset this building was) for drill instruction. Only a few rifles were available, so wooden substitutes were used for drill purposes until eventually they became fully equipped and operational. On Saturday afternoons they marched through the village, with rifles smartly at the slope, to a field by the railway station, to engage in target practice against the railway bank. Mr Ware was a proud member of this unit, and by all accounts a crack shot. They may well have been a formidable force against a parachutist, if they were dropped in. They never did, so the church bells, which were to be rung as a warning - stayed quiet.
Rumours of parachute spies' secret landings were quite common. Folk were suspicious and on the alert for strangers. There were stories that spies came disguised as monks, more of a joke than factual, but still possible.
People in those days took heed of all the official warnings. Which reminds me of the time Kenneth and a friend, Bill, decided to go for a chalk chase. Bill set off towards 'white-lye', leaving a trail of arrows chalked on the road - clues for Ken to follow in order to catch up. Unfortunately for them, their activities were observed and misunderstood. The locals did their duty and contacted the police, thinking they might be spies. The chalk chasers soon found themselves in custody, trying hard to prove their identity cards were genuine.
The Battle of Britain reached its conclusion in September that year, with victory by the RAF, and the danger of invasion receded. But the German Luftwaffe changed tactics, switching to the bombing of our large cities. On several nights, the glow of incendiary bomb fires and the sound of distant explosions, were seen and heard on the skyline. Searchlights swept the darkness, sometimes successfully pinpointing an aircraft with the beams. The horror of war was just a few miles away - we were witnessing the air raids on Cardiff and Bristol.
Only one bomb fell on Tintern, as far as I know. It came from a stray aircraft which jettisoned it in order to make for home. The river Severn being a good navigational guide, unfortunately it fell on a bungalow near 'white-lye' and practically demolished it. The occupant, Miss Summer, I believe escaped with minor injuries.
In December 1941 I reached school leaving age (14 years then), and so returned to Folkestone to start work. I sadly wished my foster family and school friends farewell. I had escaped the dangers endured by my parents. Invasion, thankfully, never came, but the war was not over, and I was to see a great deal more of it - but that's another story.
Sixty years on, I dedicate my short story to the foster parents of Tintern, and especially the lovely Ware family.
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