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15 October 2014
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Keith Underwood

by Chepstow Drill Hall

Contributed by 
Chepstow Drill Hall
People in story: 
Keith Underwood-Chepstow Memories
Location of story: 
Chepstow
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4124873
Contributed on: 
27 May 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by volunteer from The Chepstow Society on behalf of Keith Unerwood and has been added to the site with his permission. Keith Underwood fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Continues from contribution ID 4124828

We lost only one member of the family, my mother’s nephew, Percy. He was a pilot officer and was killed over Cologne. Another cousin on the maternal side was a Marine and won the DSM. Percy had the DFC posthumously.

Early in the morning of June 1st 1940 four hundred men from the evacuation of the British Expeditionary force came to Beachley and were fed, bathed and bedded down to recover for two weeks. Rumour had it that some were so demoralised and depressed, that they threw their rifles into the river. In the Robot, the school magazine, there is a touching thank-you from a Lance Bombadier and a Driver of the 351/88 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery to the school for looking after them. It gives some good first-hand observations of the withdrawal to Dunkirk and the inefficiency of the German attack on the British Army. We should be grateful for the apparent lack of German accuracy.
Further evidence on the attack on Beachley

My father was involved in Home Guard training and got to know several local people quite well. Ivor Jones kept a green-grocers shop on the corner of Albion Square and Moor Street. They used to go fishing at Beachley and mushrooming! I have an Ordance Survey map of the area with slit trenches and observations posts marked on it in red and blue pencil, no doubt for use with the Home Guard) Air raid warnings soon became everyday (and night) occurences, with enemy aircraft frequently overhead. This involved disruption in training (and sleep) even though there was only one direct attack on the School - on 9th November 19440 when a lone German aircraft caused considerable damage to Department 6 with a 1000 lb bomb and then strafed the area with machine gun fire, causing the death of Apprentice Tradesman Thornton and severely wounding a sergeant. Over five hundred air raid warnings were sounded within one three-month period.”

See my previous paragraphs on the air raids

WOll Pinchard and his family lived next door at No. 9. Bridget Drive. We had bunks in our shelter, but the Pinchards had filled theirs with cushions and blankets, thus making it a far more attractive proposition, especially with their children there as well. I wonder whether Mavis (now Thomas) remembers those days?

The drone of bombers passing overhead and the wail of the sirens accompanied my awakening, but there was an excitement in dressing hurriedly in dim candlelight to go out into the night. The smell of candles and snuffed matches always brings back that memory.

At the end of Bridget Drive was the “silver hut” of new corrugated iron. It was actually aligned with Mercian Way and was built into the bank, with a revetted space on three sides. It also had a porch. This was the Village command post, equipped with emergency supplies, blankets, etc. It also had tiered bunks that were always made up. It had a telephone and notice boards on which were all the appropriate commands and directions - and wartime notices. It also had a stirrup pump and fire buckets. My father
was often orderly sergeant or officer on night duty and, on occasion, I was allowed to stay until late.

There was always the fear of paratroop attack and runmours were rife. My father brought home a hickory truncheon for my mother to use as self protection! It became a family joke, since she was a very gentle person. When one considers what happened to defenceless women in Europe, it might have been no joking matter.

At the bottom of King Alfred’s Road, near the junction with what is now Buttington Road, stood the brick-built complex known as The Decontamination Centre (Decontam for short). The left hand part was approached by a wire-netted covered area beneath the concrete, flat roof that covered the whole building., It led to stores that contained all the necessary equipment for an emergency, but was generally intended in case of gas attack. The top half was more sinister, since it had two entrances, one at the front and one at the back. They were tall entrances, shielded by sloping battens down which could be drawn blinds. This was the decontamination section through which, periodically, each person in the Village was expected to pass in his or her gas mask. I did it only once and came out with my eyes streaming! When my father had to check the stores, I always tried to get in there with him.

Opposite to the building, buried up to ground level was the Emergency Water Supply tank (EWS). It was circular and covered with white concrete which made a marvellous play area and skating rink.

In the fields to the North of the Village were four slit trenches that must have been dug for exercise, since they gradually decayed and were frequently full of water, into which one or other of us children fell at some stage.

ADDENDUM

The plane that attacked Beachley has been said to have been a Junkers JU 88. Some say it was a Dornier, but evidence is lacking.

The bomb is said to have been a 1000 lb bomb. The nearest I can find to this is an SC 500 (2010 x 470mm), 1000 lb being 453.59 kg. The one below weighed 250 kg, and the one above 1000 kg.
It seems there was an ack-ack gun and a searchlight close to Badams Court House, but evidently its gunners and operators were too afraid to open up! Perhaps it would be fairer to say that they were concerned about the safety of local people!

I mentioned Ivor Jones, the greengrocer earlier. He lost his son, Leslie, during the War. When I went to Monmouth in September 1946, he gave me his son’s schoolbooks, pupils having had to provide their own before the War. His name is on the Roll of Honour in the School’s Shrine of Remembrance. The Shrine was dedicated on November 23rd 1950 by the Archbishop of Wales. Also in the Village was the “red hut”. This was the fire hut, containing an appliance and necessary fire-fighting equipment. Dug into the bank of Mercian Way (which was in fact the bank of Offa’s Dyke, recently discovered accidentally when a water pipe was being laid), it provided another place to climb on to. At that time elm trees lined the top of the bank. Next to the hut was an extendable ladder and fire and sand buckets hanging under a roofed structure.

Nearby, in effect the grand entrance to the Village, were the “Steps”. This was a monumental feature built as part of the 1917 “garden city” development, that included the stone roundabout on the Beachley Road at the beginning of Ormerod Road, and two at Bulwark. It was built around an old oak tree that had been the culminating point of a track that once led from a point near the Ormerod Road roundabout. The copse known by us as “The Woods” was part of this track. Only a few oak trees survive today. The structure consists of two curved flanking flights of steps with terminating “bastions”. This great and imposing castle was a focal point in our play. It was the central gathering place and, especially on a summer’s evening, children collected there to plan games, or play them. Street games were very popular and, because of the lack of traffic, safe. “Jack, Jack, can I come across the Water”, “Knock down Ginger”, “Kick the Can”, skipping, hopscotch and many other games kept us amused for hours on end. There was no mindless vandalism, since we were never bored, although I do remember someone setting fire to blackberry bushes and, I must confess that I was hauled in front of the Catholic priest (probably Father Toland), accused of breaking a panel in the single wooden garage where he kept his car, near the Decontam! This was particularly galling for my father who, in the tradition of someone brought up in the protestant belief, found the encounter an embarrassment! Football never seemed to be played, although I do recall some older boys kicking a heavy leather football about in a field near Tallards Marsh. War with children in Grahamstown Road sometimes erupted and alarmingly
realistic weapons would be prepared - bows and arrows with sharpened tips, swords, spears and shields. I was reminded very recently that my father had actually provided me with a front and back breastplate and a metal sword! I also had a “viking” helmet - with wings. Health and Safety would have had a field day on the gear that came out of the Camp’s workshops! The fights rarely materialised and, if they did, meant a free-for-all punch-up. I was always careful not to be around when these took place, taunting being enough for me! The Sedbury boys were bigger and tougher (the Davies and the Staits in particular!).

Close at hand was the countryside and the riverside. Tallards Marsh fields were rechristened by Alan Bradshaw and “the Fields of Khan” and many of our games were inspired by films seen at the Gaumont. Pye Island was a mound surrounded mostly by a moat-like ditch, but was accessible only by a hierarchy of older boys and their gangs. The “Tadpole Pond” was a large pool designed for watering cattle who turned the approaches into a quagmire. Approach from the flanking bank of a rhine, one could fish with jam-jars for tadpoles and newts.

Pennsylvania Farm was a working farm that gave us all the country experiences we could possibly need. Old Mr. Smith always wore an ochre-coloured coat, old tweed hat and wellingtons. He always seemed to have a stick. He and his wife provided milk and eggs, the milk being delivered in cans on foot. When we returned from a long journey from Kent on a summer’s evening, I would be sent down with a white enamelled lidded can for milk. I had to run the gauntlet of the sties, close to which I had to pass to get through the gate into the inner yard. Invariably a great sow would rear up and put her trotters on her wall. Once through the gate you would be met by Laddie, a large sand-coloured sheepdog who barked ferociously, but was completely soft. He had the embarrassing habit of poking his nose where it wasn’t wanted! At the door of the parlour, standing in the open door at the top of the steps, I was fascinated to watch the gleaming steel cooler and other equipment.

Walter Smith, the son, still lives in Sedbury (another source of information as yet untapped).

Cider making and threshing took place, with steam traction engines in the yard and the barn doors thrown open, straw over the cobbles and fan belts whirling. I always loved the smells that the farm exuded.
We were often in Farmer Smith’s sights, however, since from time to time we were in his orchards, scrumping.. Many were the times when we got over the fence in the nick of time, to rip our trousers on the wire, a fatal piece of evidence to be followed up by parents. Any game we played within sight of the farm had to have lookouts, but in general we were left alone.

The “Short Cut” was a name applied both to the Old Hill and the lane from Tutshill which was a main thoroughfare for everyone in days when walking was common, and to the track that ran from the Village to the Beachley Road. Our fathers cycled up and down the track on their way to and from work at Camp. On two occasions I surprised very large grass snakes crossing the path!

The farmhouse was close up to Bridget Drive and a low parapet of a retaining wall looked down into the well-kept kitchen garden, with its deep, black earth and neat rows of vegetables. The path led from the farmyard through the garden to the wall where it turned through a screen of laurels to the concealed toilet. The parapet was a natural gathering place for children, but we were often shouted at, perhaps naturally, since the Smiths needed their privacy.

When we went on picnics down to the Beach, we always went through the Farm and up the field to Buttington along the Dyke. The path down to the river was in front of the Fishermen’s Cottages (now called Buttington Terrace). As we grew older, we spent more time on the Severn shore, often a whole day. We could light fires and hurl stones, playing “ducks and drakes”. At high tide you could shout out to the sailors on the many ships that passed up and down between Sharpness and Avonmouth, and they would wave back. Eventually we explored as far as Pighole Woods, probably towards the end of the War.

As I have said, some neighbours stayed for quite a long time, some for the Duration, but others came and went quickly. WOl Tootell and his wife lived on one side of us for a long time. They were an older couple. Next to us on the end had been the Pinchards, but after they left, we had one or two problem families. One soldier brought with him an Indian wife who spoke no English, who wore her traditional sari (despite the bitter weather) and who seemed to know nothing about housework or bringing up their baby boy. My mother became deeply involved in looking after her, together with Mrs Bradshaw and other wives. There was no question of any racial feeling. People pulled together and she was treated like any
other Army wife. The poor woman was clearly unhappy and out of her depth and I got the impression that her husband didn’t treat her too well. As a child, I had good hearing and nothing much missed my attention!

Another soldier who came there, I think with another foreign wife, perhaps Greek or Greek Cypriot, attempted to hang himself from the bannister rail (their’s was a larger end house and had a landing). My father cut him down, I think during the night, when the wife knocked us up in a terrible state. He struggled so violently that he dented my father’s cigarette case in his pocket. I still have that somewhere!

On another occasion I was playing along Bridget Drive in the house of a friend whose father, like mine, was a Warrant Officer, but with a Greek wife - and pretensions! I probably deserved it, but I don’t know to this day what I did, but the woman slapped me across the face, leaving a red weal. In tears and anquish, I ran home, whereupon my mother, normally a kind and gentle soul, threw off her apron, grabbed me by the arm and yanked me at top speed back along the road. I have never ever again seen such a dressing down she gave the woman and, undoubtedly my father followed up the retribution in the Mess later. No doubt I got a clip round the ear from both my parents!

There was also a Warrant Officer whose wife had died (not Mr. Dennis) and who had a “housekeeper” in to look after him and his son. The lad was always sad and rumour was rife that he was constantly being beaten by the woman. Normally, if there were soldiers who misbehaved in any way that might upset the Army’s moral and disciplinary code, their feet didn’t touch the floor. My father was known for his firmness and his fairness, but perhaps at this stage he was outranked - and “grassing” was frowned upon.

There were also one or two families who kept a tight rein on their children, who were never allowed out to play, but kept neatly dressed and isolated from our influence. In later years they almost all went off the rails, sadly.

The actual air raid sirens were, as far as I can remember, on top of the police station at Tutshill, on top of the fire station at the bottom of Lower Church Street, the shipyard and at Beachley Camp. After the War, the shipyard siren was used as a factory hooter. From time to time the Beachley and the shipyard sirens, still existing, are tested today, though only in the “all clear” mode.

Mr. Hunt was my mother’s preferred butcher, at the London Central Meat Company in St. Mary Street. Mr. Dibden was the manager of the Golden Five (Thomas’s Store) in St. Mary Street. After the War he delivered groceries to my mother. Vic Harries’s Hairdressers saw to my mother’s wants, but my father and I had our hair cut at the Camp barber’s at Beachley, Mrs Goodrich was the patronne. In 1948, when my father came out of the Army, he and I transferred to Harries’s. Later I went to Tom Martin. I don’t think we shopped at Herbert Lewis’s, since it was financially only open to my parents in their early days to have their furniture on hire purchase from Jay’s in Newport. Lewis’s was rather up- market and expensive, although I have no doubt that, like most housewives, my mother kept her eye on bargains. She would not buy rubbish, however.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Chepstow

Posted on: 28 May 2005 by brian walker

Keith I must compliment you on a well
written account.You must have an
excellent memory because the detail
is impressive.Once I started reading
I had to contiue to the end.I hope
there is more to come.
Well done.
Brian Walker,
Adelaide,
South Australia.

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