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The Odd Job Man

by HughMyd

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
HughMyd
People in story: 
None
Location of story: 
London
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4163573
Contributed on: 
07 June 2005

To the Editor

I have just finished my life story, a sort of ‘Cockney Kid to Squadron Leader’
It is for family consumption but I have extracted some stories that you may wish to make use of. They are extract from the period September 1939 to September 1941.

Sqn. Ldr. A.Garretts MBE retd garryjohn1@sagainternet.co.uk

Humour

Even during the blitz there was still a great deal of humour, Here are two examples.

1. There were Air Raid Wardens all over the country and they had many tasks. Helping to dig people out of bombed buildings was one, clearing the streets when an alarm had been sounded was another. They also had to make sure that no lights shone out during the blackout. (Even the tip of a lit cigarette was supposed to be covered in case it could be seen by a German bomb-aimer!) They were given their own surface shelters, normally constructed of sandbags. There was an ARP Wardens post built on Threadneedle Street, behind the Bank of England and the Bank's wall had been used as part of the construction. Across the entrance door the Warden had placed a board that stated 'Built with a sound financial backing'.

2. Some of the trains on the London Underground come out of the tunnels in many places and run out in the open. A thick netting had been stuck over the windows and the glass on the doors to prevent them being blown in to the carriage by a bomb blast. During this time an advertising campaign was running that started with "Mr Brown of London Town says....... In the middle of the netting was a little poster that showed a picture of some one peeling the netting off the window and Mr. Brown saying, "I hope you will pardon my correction, but that is there for your protection". Under this some one had written, "I hope you will pardon my frustration but I can't see the bloody station."

My Home

For some of the stories below to make any sense it is necessary to describe the location and position of my home. I lived in Hackney and the house was on the corner of a crossroad. The highway running approximately North/South was the Lea Bridge Road. East/West it was the river Lea. The house was in fact a pub called the ‘Prince of Wales’ Looking out of the back window across the river and to the right of the Lea Bridge Road was the offices and reservoirs of the Metropolitan Water Board, To the left of the road were the Lea Marshes (On some maps it is called the Walthamstow Marshes)

The Pillbox

Our dining room was on the corner of the house on the first floor. The two windows gave a good field of fire across the bridge. Some one must have thought that should there be an enemy landing on the marshes the bridge would have to be defended as the road on our side of the bridge headed straight towards the centre of London. The room was turned in to a `pill box'. Normally a pillbox would stand alone and be made of solid concrete and thus safe from everything other than a direct hit from a high explosive shell. For our `pill box' the thickness of the walls was doubled and the windows were removed to be replaced with concrete in which there were slits for Browning machine guns. In addition a Sergeant and two soldiers were billeted on us. The only problem was that this room sat on top of the Pub itself and nothing was done to strengthen the ground floor walls, most of which were single brick above which were sheets of plate glass announcing, "The Prince of Wales, Saloon Bar."

Danger Money (?)

The Lea was a working river. Tugs pulling a string of barges, or a single barge pulled by a horse, would come up from the Thames loaded with wood for the various timber yards, coal for the power station and all sorts of other things, including explosives on the way to the armament factory at Ware in Hertfordshire. The ‘ammo’ barges were identified by a large red flag. One day I saw one of these coming towards us with its red flag flying, just as the alarm sounded. On arrival at the bridge the bargee tied the barge up under the bridge and then he and the horseman got on to the horse's back and trotted off. They returned when the all clear sounded. A number of our customers and local residents also departed when they found out that 90 tons of dynamite was sitting under the bridge. By the way, the bargee and his mate got extra 'danger' money when they were on these barges

The Home Guard

Prior to Dunkirk the Local Defence Volunteers had been formed. In the main these were veterans of the First World War, (hence Dad's Army) but after Dunkirk the name was changed to the Home Guard and any one could join. Youngsters like myself, waiting to be called up and/or until they were old enough to volunteer plus men in reserved occupations were encouraged to join, so I decided to join the Hackney Home Guard.

While most of the males in the U.K. were liable for conscription there were certain occupations that were exempt and called 'reserved'. Policeman, firemen, and miners were in this category but there was one way these individuals could join the Forces and that was to volunteer and be accepted for aircrew training. I stood in a queue inside the Hackney Town Hall. Behind a counter stood a very harassed character, who I later discovered was a Captain. The conversation went something like this:

CAPTAIN. "Name ?"
lst. MAN "Smith"
CAPTAIN "Reserved occupation?”
1st MAN "Yus mate, stoker in the gas works"
CAPTAIN "Sign here"
CAPTAIN "Name?”
2nd MAN "Brown"
CAPTAIN "Reserved occupation?”
2nd MAN "Yus mate, bargee on the river"
CAPTAIN "Sign here"
CAPTAIN "Name?”
ME "Garretts"
CAPTAIN "What do you do?”
ME "I'm a Junior Clerk in the City .
CAPTAIN "Yes, but what do you do?"
ME "Shorthand, typing, book-keeping"
CAPTAIN as he lifted up the flap to the counter, "Come in Sergeant, you are now in charge of this Office.

As a result of this rapid promotion at the age of 18 I think I can claim to have been the youngest Sergeant in the Home Guard.

I came home from the H.G. one night while a raid was on and went to the roof to look around. There was a large fire at the timber yard, up river, so I decided to go and have a closer look. Firemen would normally position themselves up wind of the fire but with the wind coming across the river this was not possible. They would have been too close to the fire if they worked from the towpath and too far away on the other side of the river. Instead they had to operate from alongside the fire. This meant that the positions they were working from were very hot and as a result they were being relieved every fifteen minutes or so. Spotting me, still in uniform, one of the Senior Firemen asked if I would care to help with the hoses, to which I said yes. My first shift was at ground level. The second was from the top of a turntable ladder. Luckily, although the raid was still going on, the Germans did not seem to be using the fire as an aiming point.

Across the road from the P o W was a police box. Along side it was the air raid siren. One night I was chatting to the duty copper when the 'phone rang. During the conversation I heard him say "There is a member of the Home Guard here" and then, "I'll tell him". It seemed that the signal man in the box on the Lea Marshes had seen what he thought was a parachute come down somewhere on the Marshes and that the Home Guard at the Town Hall were getting a platoon together and would come along as soon as they could find a vehicle. They were some two miles away. Meanwhile I was to go out to the signal box, get a report from the signalman and then search for and detain(?) the parachutist.

To get to the box I had to walk nearly a mile along the riverbank, with the Lea Marshes on my right, until I arrived at the point where a railway bridge crossed the river. Here I had to turn right to pass in front of the various arches that supported the railway until I reached a point where I could climb up the embankment. (It was in these arches that circa 1910 Alliot Verdun Roe {AVRO} built his early aircraft) I then had to walk just under a quarter of a mile along the line until I reached the signal box. Because of the blackout all this had to be done in the pitch dark. Having discovered the way the parachute was supposed to have drifted I was then to follow that line, searching until I reached `civilisation' and then try and make contact with the Platoon via a telephone!

The best part of the instruction was that if I came across a Parachutist I was to take him prisoner and bring him back with me. As a member of the H.G. I had been issued with a rifle so I was armed but, as I had not been on the rifle range, I had not been issued with any ammunition. Thank goodness I did not find anything, nor did the Platoon. The Germans had started to drop mines by parachute and in daylight the following morning one was found hanging from a tree on the far side of the marshes. I suspect this is what the man in the signal box had seen.

.Having been bombed out of our offices in London Wall, Allied Investors Fixed Trust (the company I worked for) moved to Copthal Court. The offices were on the ground floor and my desk was by a window at the bottom of a light well. One day during a daylight raid I was working at my desk when I heard a series of whistles and thumps. Looking out of the window I spotted three incendiary bombs sticking in to the basement roof. These bombs were about 20 inches long and the best way to stop them burning was to deprive them of oxygen by covering them with sand, preferably a sandbag. However the Germans had started to make life more difficult by including a delayed explosive charge in some of the bombs. The idea was to kill or maim those trying to put them out.

One of the things covered during Home Guard training was the best way to tackle these fire bombs and that was to approach them holding a sandbag in front of you with the left hand at thigh level and the right just to the side of the face. In this way your body and head were protected from any possible blast. There had been some foresight by the building’s manager as there were a number of sandbags in position round the bottom of the well. So I decided to have a go. I had covered one and I was going for the next when it exploded. As a result I had some 19 pieces of small shrapnel in my legs and my pin stripe trousers were ruined. Another junior clerk who had decided to come out and help caught the blast in his face. I spent about a week in hospital where all but two pieces were taken out. One that had gone under the right kneecap started to give me trouble later while I was serving in Malta in '47 and was removed. As far as I know the other piece is still in my right instep.

This occurred around March 194l. Lying in the hospital bed I started to think about my pending conscription. When the war started conscription was introduced and except for those in reserved occupations I believe that all men between 21 and 35 were being 'called up'. As the war continued the lower age limit was progressively reduced and at this time had come down to about 20 and I was approaching 19. It seemed to me that it would not be long before the two ages coincided. If you were conscripted you had no choice of service. If you volunteered the choice was yours. I hated walking so did not want to go in to the Army. The Navy was out. I felt sure that I would be seasick. And I did not want to be a Bevan Boy. (A member of the Government, Mr. Bevan had introduced an act whereby conscripts could be sent down the mines to increase the coal output. Hence, Bevan Boys). That was not for me, so I decided that come my 19th. birthday I would volunteer for aircrew training. I broke the news to my boss when he came to visit me in hospital and he was very angry. He had spent a lot (of the firm's) money to have my pin stripe trousers cleaned and invisibly mended.

The RAF

On 3rd. April ’41, my 19th. birthday I volunteered for duty with the RAF. Having volunteered in April it was June before I was sent for to see if I was acceptable for aircrew training. The qualifications required turned out to be very simple. First the statement that I had a School Leaving Certificate was accepted as reaching the required educational standard. (I had not but I said I had. I left school at 16) Then came the medical. I should mention here that up to this time I had worn glasses for the past 10 years or so but on this occasion left them at home. I passed the eye test; in fact I was rated as A1. Then there were the tests designed to ensure that I had the ability to be a member of aircrew. First I had to close my eyes, stand on one leg with my right arm extended to the side and then swing my arm round in an arc to touch the tip of my nose with my finger. This was then repeated while I stood on the other leg. For the second test I was required to sit at a table in front of what looked like two cricket stumps. On each stump was a handle that slid up and down. I was then blindfolded and told to hold one of the handles at the top of the stump and the other at the bottom. On the word go I had to bring both hands to a level position about halfway up the stump. This was repeated from several different starting positions. Last but not least I had a clamp put over my nose and a tube stuffed in my mouth. By blowing down the tube I could raise a column of mercury. I was required to take a deep breath, raise the mercury level by 30 inches and hold it for at least 50 seconds. I passed all the tests and was told to go home and wait for my papers.

AIR CREW RECEPTION CENTRE 8th. Sep. l941 to 27th. Sep 1941.

The A.C.R.C. was at Lords Cricket Ground. How many others reported on the same day I do not know but it seemed that there were hundreds of youngsters either in brand new uniforms or, like me, in civilian clothes. Having spent some time in the Long Room, filling in various documents, we were formed up in to Flights (groups) of about 60 and in time got ourselves in to three rows. Except for fall outs we stayed together till we got our wings.

A Warrant Officer, the most senior non-commissioned rank in the RAF (and the Army) stood before us and explained what the next few days held in store for us. It included the issue of uniforms, medical examinations, inoculations, vaccinations, lectures on hygiene and as far as he was concerned the most important thing, learning how to march and salute.

We were then advised that we were to be escorted to our billets and at this point were told our first `funny'. He explained that there was a war on (!) and that meant that there was a shortage of paper so that when we used the toilets in the billets we were to remember that the issue was two pieces of paper per man per day. He then went on to say "It's different in the Navy” this point being emphasised with a limp wrist action. "They get three pieces” PREGNANT PAUSE. " The extra one to allow for the roll of the ship."

And Then

Some ten months later I graduated as a Sergeant Pilot. When the war ended I was a Warrant Officer and retired as a Squadron Leader in 1971. Along the way I picked up an MBE. My only remote connection with the RAF now is that I give talks on the Berlin Airlift and donate my fees to the RAFA.

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