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Recollections of my father and the war

by marionclarion

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Archive List > Rationing

Contributed by 
marionclarion
People in story: 
my father Martin Apley and myself
Location of story: 
Potters Bar Middlesex and Waltham Abbey/Waltham Cross
Background to story: 
56th Essex Battalion Home Guard
Article ID: 
A2306873
Contributed on: 
17 February 2004

It was wartime when I was born in October 1942, so I was only 3 years old when the war ended, yet I still distinctly recall the pride and the pleasure I felt whenever my father returned home from his exercises with the home guard in his neatly pressed khaki uniform, shoes and belt, buttons and buckles all highly polished (sometimes to my delight I had been allowed to help him with the polishing beforehand). I would stand smartly to attention, saluting correctly, the way he had taught me, the long way up and the short way down, exclaiming loudly as I did so,
"Salute Captain Daddy".

At that time we lived in Potters Bar, Middlesex, which my parents considered to be rural and safe enough so that I did not have to be evacuated.

My father & the War:

A research chemist, my father was in a reserved occupation and so was not called up to fight with the forces, but he was happy to serve as an officer in the Home Guard, specialising in teaching others both first aid and how to save people from gas attacks.

After my father died in December 2000, I felt very proud to find this letter from his commanding officer amongst his papers, written when his Battalion split up in December 1944, as follows :-
___________________________________

56TH ESSEX BATTALION HOME GUARD
TELEPHONES:
WALTHAM CROSS
2137, 2306, 2494
70 HIGH BRIDGE STREET,
WALTHAM ABBEY,
ESSEX
29TH DECEMBER 1944

STATION:
WALTHAM CROSS
L.N.E.R.

REFERENCE NO. 56 ESX./H.G.?3…….

Dear Apley

Before we finally stand down, I would like to convey my appreciation of the help which you, like all other officers, have given me during my period of command.

In many ways we have had to overcome greater difficulties than have other battalions.

We started late which entailed a rapid expansion to catch up with older units. We have lost large numbers of trained officers and men to the regular forces and on re-direction to other industries. Several times we have had to carry out thorough re-organisations including formation of an L.A.A. Troup. And our operational role has constantly altered, by progressive stages, as we became more efficient and better armed.

All of these facts have meant much extra work for officers, both in the matter of keeping up-to-date in military knowledge and in administration.

Yet, with very few exceptions, there has been no faltering of purpose; and the spirit of co-operation has enabled us to rise above our difficulties and to stand down as a Battalion, which is second to none.

Without the loyal support of all officers this proud result could not have been achieved.

I hope that our Association will enable us to keep in touch with each other in the future. In the meantime, I wish you all good fortune, wherever you may be.

Yours sincerely,

Signed (?) E. W. Chansfield
___________________________________

Being Chief Chemist at a firm in the fledgling plastics industry and involved in research, especially focusing on phenol-formaldehyde resins and foams, my father put his inventions to good use for the war effort, for example creating a method of coating the containers full of equipment, food and supplies to be parachuted down to the troupes abroad, (the MOD needed to solve the problem, however, that these containers were being destroyed on impact, splitting into fragments, their contents wasted, strewn and scattered all over the countryside - they needed the containers to be lightweight yet strong enough to resist and stay whole) — my father applied his skills to solving the problem and invented a suitable coating ..... these new, coated containers were so strong and water-resistant that, after safe delivery, they could even be used like onoe-man rafts or coracles upon the water.

Another of his coating inventions helped the air force in the tropics. The problem here was that, until then, the glue used to hold the Mosquito aircraft together, whilst completely satisfactory in Europe, was dissolving in the high heat and humidity of the jungles and the planes were literally falling apart on the ground. He invented a new type of “glue” so that even in those adverse conditions the layers of wood of the plywood frames plus their covering substances no longer fell apart.

His materials were also crucial to the success of the bouncing bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis and used by the "Dambusters" to destroy the hydroelectric dams in the upper Ruhr in 1943. The problems were that the spherical metal bombs became dented on impact and would not properly bounce but if the metal was thick enough not to dent, the bomb became too heavy for air transport. My father devised a liquid resin, which was used to fill the hollow metal spheres (built to contain the explosives and detonators) which on curing and drying in huge ovens solidified to produced a light, impact resistant foam, thus when dropped, on impact the bombs kept their shape and were able to bounce as required.

Some more recollections of mine :

I recall with far different emotions the sounds of the bombs passing overhead during the war before exploding nearby. Although I was never actually involved in any bombings, for very many years after the war had ended I continued to have dreadful nightmares that a plane would drop bombs specifically on our house! Throughout my children’s childhood and even nowadays, at firework time, I always avoid bangers, chiefly because I hate the loud explosions, I think because they remind me of wartime bombs.

The wail of the siren before an attack was a terrifying lament that signalled us scurrying into the Nissan shelter in the garden or in really bad weather under the Anderson Bed in the living room. I really disliked my “siren suit” because it had a loose bum-flap at the back, closed by buttons that were both uncomfortable to sleep on and let the draughts in, but to be fair one could go to the toilet without getting undressed. My only comfort in wearing it was that my mother used to wear one too.

On a train journey to Manchester during or just at the end of the war to visit some friends, my mother gave me a journal to look at and I still remember the feel, the smell (the taste) and the colours of it. It was a glossy illustrated magazine with soldiers on the front cover, an orange-red-golden glow all around them as fires from dropped bombs burned nearby. When clearing out old papers in our loft after my father had died, I found that very magazine and it was just as I had remembered it.

Friends of ours used to keep chickens in their back garden, so during the war we saved all the kitchen scraps, sometimes cooking them to a pulp, sometimes raw (potato and carrot peelings, outer cabbage leaves, old bread crusts and other kitchen leftovers) and every few days my mother and I would walk down the hill to their house and feed their chickens. In return our friends gave us the luxury of one egg a week, which my mother always gave to me. In times of rationing eggs were hard to come by.

On one occasion, in spring, when hens lay most plentifully, my parents managed to buy several eggs at once from the market and planned to conserve them by using Isinglass, a type of pure gelatin, which my father had obtained through his chemical suppliers at work, but it was very smelly, (probably from being made of the swimming bladder of sturgeon and other fish from the Caspian and Black Seas), so they were reluctant to use it.

Instead they acquired some waterglass from the chemist’s (liquid sodium silicate) which they diluted with boiled water and placed into large glass jars, into which they then gently plunged the precious cargo of eggs, topping up the jars to the brim. So that the levels of waterglass solution would not drop, they melted sealing wax around the jar lids to keep them airtight. In theory sodium silicate works by sealing the eggs and should keep them fresh for up to a year because the alkali is supposed to retard growth of micro-organisms by forming a protective shell. When my parents tried to use their preserved eggs, however, something had gone horribly wrong, the clear liquid had turned to a milky jelly and even before breaking open their shells, the eggs stank with the unmistakeably strong sulphuric stench of rotten eggs.

My father then decided to experiment by inventing a protective coating for the eggs from mixtures of resins and hardeners that would both prevent air entry and toughen the shells. He succeeded in this, but then needed a hammer or a chopper to open the “strengthened” steel-like shells and the contents became totally inaccessible and unusable! More precious eggs wasted!!

I remember once when we visited my grandparents in Varden Street in the East End of London, the magnificent spectacle of seeing what seemed like millions of barrage balloons filling the sky. The seemed to go on forever and ever, parallel rows of grey oval bodies, becoming increasingly like tiny dots and minute specks in the distance.

On another occasion, whilst visiting elderly friends of my grandparents, Mr and Mrs Bristowsky, (despite the wartime frugalities, she managed to make the most delicious Cinnamon Balls I have ever tasted in my life), we watched the bright afternoon sky from their kitchen. They stood me on the draining board of their sink in front of the window so that I could see; she held on to me so tightly (so I would not fall) that I felt I was suffocating, (and she had a lot of hairs on her chin that felt rough and itchy to my young cheek). We gazed in admiration whilst hundreds of parachutists practiced their descents seemingly over and over again. Quite why they were doing this over the East End of London I am not at all clear.

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