- Contributed by
- John Phillip Thornton
- People in story:
- Mum, Monica and myself
- Location of story:
- Bushey Park Kingston upon Thames
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 August 2005
The Thornton’s War part 3
This new abode, like a number of houses adjoining Bushy Park, was separated from the park by a lengthy road, called Sandy Lane. Generally, the park side of Sandy Lane hadn’t a pavement (walkway) and it stretched from Kingston Upon Thames Bridge (spanning the river Thames), ending some miles away at Teddington.
Throughout the war, Bushy Park housed a Royal Air Force camp and laboratory. It was here, from 1943 that Allied Headquarters Supreme Allied Commander, US General Dwight. D.Eisenhower, and other senior warmongers planned the D-Day invasion of France. The Kingston camp was the troops living and recreation quarters. The Teddington camp, was the industrial section for scientific work.
At the age of six, I was involved with an older cousin (a paper boy) in the breakfast time sale of English newspapers at the RAF canteen. With tabloid newspapers at 1.1/2 d, and broadsheets at 3.1/2 — to 4 d, my payment being the loose change left as a tip by the diners. With 1100 personnel of all ranks and both sex dining, I might earn up to £4 weekly?
My cousins and I would watch parachute training within Bushy Park, the site being just 100 yards from my abode, we could watch from our third floor windows, having a grand view of their parachute jumps.
Lorries towing a large winch, an oval basket, a dirigible (barrage Balloon) and gas cylinders into the park. The silver coloured monster Dirigible were attached to the Basket following inflation from gas cylinders then a number of the fifty of so troopers assembled would enter the basket through the side entrance. The balloon ascended to 800, or 1000 ft, before the jumping commenced.
We would hear an instructor shouting advice and the wo/men would fall from the basket at short intervals, parachuting to the ground. They would then gather their parachute and be collected in a lorry, then return to the starting point as the dirigible were lowered and, other wo/men embarked before returning to its ceiling for another jump.
Once we watched as two parachutists, the second from one basket and, the seventh from another, fell to the ground, their parachute failing to open correctly. It took us kids minutes to reach the area to view the victim as s/he lay motionless in a small stream, but we were cordoned off by a number of Red cap military policemen.
A small jeep type covered vehicle, removed the corpses. The second victim fell into the forest breaking a silver birch tree. The military police men kept us well clear of this area. Despite the accidents, the parachuting continued. The dirigible continued to climb and, return to earth until the exercise finished for that day.
Six of one — half-a-dozen of the other
After the war, these camps were allocated to the American Army Air-Force (AAF). The occupants we named yanks, after their monthly forces magazine printed and published by non-officer personnel and entitled Yank, which was well read inside and often given to us children, whereupon we offered them to our friends etc.
My cousins and I scrutinised these yanks, most in their late teens as they moved into their Nissan-hut living quarters. They were dressed in their work fatigues, and with just one entrance to this camp, the yanks were confined to it for the first week.
Two yanks approach the eight feet high chain link fencing, topped with two feet of barbed wire. There was ark-type lights situated every 5 or so metres, and it looked like a real prison camp. From a section out of sight of the sentry box, the yanks beckoned us gawping at them in curiosity.
Enquiry and supper
One yank introduced himself, asking “ the name of your limey fish dish? And could you obtain some? ” They’d been paid in “ limey money ” and as two of us had cycles - the fish shop being minutes away, we agreed to obtain some. With a large portion of fish and chips at 1/6d (7 ½ p nowadays), a one- pound note wrapped around a stone, were expertly thrown to us over the wire.
We returned appearing blimpish as we pushed our cycles through the Bushy Park gate, in full view of the camp sentry. We each had six portions of fish and chips, wrapped separately in newspaper, stored inside our shirt, and were delighted when told to keep the change from the acquisition. Possibly the purchase and passing the food through a hole beneath the wire without being seen by their security, were considered worth the tip?
This 2/- shillings (10p nowadays) were shared out, as it were a fortune to us lads. My mother paid me a tanner (6d) pocket money that I had to earn by feeding the family animals daily. Picketing the 14-tree orchard of fallen soft fruit and nuts, also shopping for fish-n-chip suppers for my uncle and my family on Friday evenings.
A Lead/acid battery, within an 8” x 4” square glass box, powered our radio. Mum would carefully remove this from the radio each Saturday morning, and I conveyed it to a small commercial car garage. Here at the cost of 6d, it would have the distilled water and sulphuric acid topped up and recharged. This would take time, therefore I would be provided with a fully charged substitute.
I found it comforting sitting beside and listening to the wooden cased radio, much as we do with the TV nowadays. Television was then, unknown to average Britons.
Every Saturday morning, I would cycle into Hampton Wick, and buy the household weekend Joint of meat, groceries etc for both families. Pay the newspaper bills; also purchase knick-knacks for my cousin’s grandmother at the Co- operative store.
The 6d earen’t would pay for my Saturday morning matinee visit at the Cinema costing 3d, to 4d. The remainder I would spend on 2 ounces of sweets, or fresh fruit at 1d a portion at Kingston market.
Whilst our yank friends savoured their meal, one enquired if we had sisters? My positive answer encouraged him to ask what colour hair she had? His colleague explained that, Ginger was a ” limey word for red-head.” He then urged me to encourage my sister to meet him at the camp gate the following Saturday evening. Of course my mother wouldn’t allow my younger sister to attend said rencontrer.
During the first month, the yanks were transported to and from their employment by coaches and large AAF lorries. Later, most would walk the distance, as had the RAF personnel before.
When meeting the yanks we kids often chanted, “Got-any-gum-chum?” frequently receiving some. Once a group of yanks walking through the park on its unpaved track joined us as we kicked my birthday present, a leather football. Unfortunately they kicked the ball so hard it caused the casing to split. Nevertheless we made our usual request, they jokingly countered with an offer of a Camel or Lucky Stripe (luckies) cigarette. I accepted a luckie and the proffered light, also the advice to inhale — blimey; didn’t I choke!
With the yanks among us, some bought British cars for use socially. One, an Austin 7 was fitted with blacked out windows and repainted yellow and a sign reading ‘ Don’t laugh mother - your daughter might be inside’, were painted in red on either side.
A handsome stranger.
Very early one morning in 1945, mum awakened my sister and I. Dad had arrived home on his first ever leave from combat, throughout the five years of his participation in the war. His allowance was a 36-hour leave period prior to his demobilisation.
Mum led me and carried my sister into the billiard room, where a very tanned man in immaculate battle dress browns confronted us. His jacket with sergeant stripes and campaign ribbons, also a badge upon the upper right hand sleeve, showing (what I thought it was a long tailed mouse) it was a rat sitting upright, the desert rats emblem.
The jacket was hanging from a chair back. Also a net covered steel helmet and military cap lay across the seat of the chair. Alongside this was dads Lee-Enfield SMLE rifle, (of which I was most interested). Dad took the rifle minus the activating bolt, and hung it from a hook well out of reach of my inquisitive hands.
My sister and I were embraced in turn, I being an infant, my sister unborn when Dad went off to war. What joy, Dad had with him a medium size biscuit-tin, full of continental chocolate bars. After tucking into one, I being tired, mum urged me to return to bed. My sister didn’t, until she fell asleep in dad’s arms. I often reflect on our joy at this meeting and, of other children who were never to meet their father, who had paid the ultimate price during the hostilities.
Throughout his campaigns, Dad had received a number of wounds to his neck, chest, hip and leg. I remarked on the scars, upon seeing some of them as he shaved. Dad never divulged how he received them, just mentioning the countries where he was wounded, but I felt he had lost interest in the war.
After tea the following day, dad left to rejoin his Division, and returned to us upon his demobilization in 1946. I well remember and we laugh at a photograph taken on his return home wearing a brand new demob issue, double breasted, grey pinstriped suit. Also a grey trilby hat, black shoes and carrying an overcoat and a glossy brown cardboard suitcase
Those terrible times
Dad seldom spoke about the war. Although on one occasion, at a social function, I overheard him revoking a young US airman, who was criticizing the Soviet role in the war.
Dad supposed the 1943 struggle for the Kursk Salient was the greatest pitched battle of all time. Seemingly, thousands of tanks and aircraft, and millions of troops were involved.
Dad said that we supplied the Russians, vie the artic convoys, with the best armour we had, but the German armour and planes were superior. Russia manufactured so many of their weaker armoured T34 tanks that they outnumbered the heavier German Tiger and Panthers. The Russian T34 was built to withstand the cold weather and they would start the battle early, whilst the Germans were trying to start their frozen machines. In spite of loosing hundreds of Russian T34s, daily, and with many women drivers, the German attack was turned and routed.
With hundreds of thousands of casualties, even more German troops were drawn to the Eastern front battles. Hitler’s fate was sealed and the D-Day landings in Normandy were successful.
Dad whispered that instead of criticizing troops who actually fought, the American should give tribute to the soviet combatant. For each German soldier killed by Briton and their allies, 10 got their quietus from the Soviet Red Army.
It wasn’t for nothing that our Prime Minister Winston Churchill broadcast, “ It was the Red Army that tore the guts out of the Werhmacht.”
Dad would shake his head in disbelief at the media reports of the Korea and Suez crisis. He died revealing little more than being present when Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, also General Bernard Montgomery, visited Britain’s Eighth Army in North Africa. Dad also watched as Pope Pius X11 give his blessing and spoke in seven languages from his throne at the Vatican city following the relief of Rome.
I now realise ex-servicemen such as my father, after six years of front line action wanted nothing more to do with militarism. Joining veterans’ links and regimental exhibitionists were unthinkable.
Fille de jole
From late 1945 onwards we would observe from our windows the occasional yank and a female companion, scramble through the metal railings adjoining Bushy Park forest and, make their way to one of the chestnut trees where they made mutual contact. Often in the late evenings, my mother would admonish and urge the lovers to move on as they argued loudly over payment of said coupling, sometimes performed against the fence surrounding our dwelling.
My sister and I would walk the three miles, (almost an hour) stretch to our school and return, using the Sandy Lane route. We wouldn’t see many vehicles apart from that of the military. Occasionally a Jeep would screech to a halt alongside us, usually as we reached the bleakest stretch between the Park and, the Gas-works walls. A yank would ask “wanner lift kids?” and we would be lifted to sit behind the driver and his companion, often falling backwards into the seat, as the Jeep flew along the lane until we reached our destination minutes later, where we would be placed upon the path, with the obligatory stick of chewing gum.
Upon my fathers demobilisation after the war, he returned to work as a foreman boilermaker at the family firm based at Hounslow in Middlesex. In the evenings Dad enjoyed a pint of ale and would fraternise with colleagues and play darts at a public house called the Station Hotel, adjacent to the local Hampton Wick railway station.
This pub was a mere ¾ mile from the Yank base. Many of them would visit, but black and Hispanic yanks and white yanks didn’t mix socially and this public house was considered white by the yanks. Our black friends used the Bridge Hotel, a much larger building a short distance away and adjacent to Kingston Bridge.
My father was an excellent dart player and was soon challenged by the yanks, one of who, a Sergeant named Skrupe, joined the dart group and became a key participant. The team played to a ferociously high standard and almost always won the area darts championship cup. It was one of those places where team sports were often battled out and the Championship and award cups grew at an alarming rate, with a regular extension of the award cabinet being manufactured and fitted.
During and following WW2, foodstuff, especially those that I enjoyed, sweets, oranges of bananas were impossible to obtain, most being shipped to Britain from abroad with the entire problem involved.
Vegetables also apples and onions grown locally in Britain were plentiful when in season. Eggs were difficult to obtain, therefore a egg powder in a box equal to 12 eggs, enough to last a person two months were issued, nice if you used it for cakes and scrambled egg, but useless if you wanted a boiled or fried egg.
Skrupe would often help by passing a packet of this egg powder to my father, the package bearing the stars and stripes. Skrupe also had access to rolling tobacco, I am sure father, who didn’t enjoy tailor made cigarettes, took advantage of this.
Occasionally I was allowed into the AAF camp where I would join the American youngsters for recreation purposes. The yank lads of my age taught me to play baseball, basketball and yank football, (the latter more like British rugby union). I would swap my British comics for the US glossy ones. I would be offered a gift of glass marbles, which I called alley-gobs. I was also able to take advantage of their cooked food at lunchtime, none of which were rationed.
What a find?
One Sunday my friends and I found a dustbin size hole in the Bushy Park, industrial camp wire fence, made (we found out later) by yanks and used as a short cut to their living quarters camp. With no one about, we entered the camp. In what was obviously a dump we found a quantity of cloudy circular glass objects we retrieved for use as marbles.
We entered a number of door - less empty disused huts. One, had a well-used dartboard with two darts attached, we played upon this for a while. A lockless cabin type trunk was found in the corner and on opening we were astonished to find 27 sealed cardboard boxes, the labels advertised that they contained .303 mm bullets. There were also a tin containing twenty imitation bullets with brass shells and wooden bullets painted brown, with red tips.
We wouldn’t touch the live cartridges for a while, but eventually removed three boxes, concealing two of these in a redundant solid fuel stove dumped adjacent to the camp wire. A share out of the remaining 303 bullets gave us enough to take home that evening.
At school the following morning our school friends, goggled at our booty, especially with my bullets contained as they were in its rifle munitions clip, looking quite deadly. I retained my ammunition until Saturday, unlike others who sold theirs for 6d each, anticipating collecting more the following Sunday.
That Saturday evening, one of two English detectives visited me. Apparently an adult had sequestrated his child’s munitions and tried to remove the explosive contents by cramping the cartridge in a vice and striking the explosive cap using a hammer and nail. The explosion blew off part of his forefinger resulting in visitation by the police.
My three friends were already sat in a green; four-door police car and we were taken to collect the remaining munitions from our hiding place. The detectives escorted us through the camp wire to the hut, and saw where we discovered the munitions.
These huts being without doors saved us from prosecution, we hadn’t broken and entered. On returning home, charges were apparently forgotten by the police, but not my parents.
Days later I saw the hole in the camp wire had been restored and the dumping site cleared. Presumably a few yanks were upset at the extra half-mile trek involved, now that the wire had been together?
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