- Contributed by
- BBC Southern Counties Radio
- People in story:
- Victor Brown, Roley Bowde, George VI
- Location of story:
- Warboys, Ramsey, Wyton, Cambridgeshire, Islington, Highbury Corner, Hendon
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Ted Newcomen from the Hastings Community Learning Centre and has been added to the website on behalf of Victor Brown with his permission and he fully understand the site’s terms and conditions.
Evacuation to Warboys, Cambridgeshire
My name is Victor Brown and when war broke out in 1939 I was aged about 11 years old and living in Islington, London, with my parents and older sister. I can remember being taken down to Finsbury Park station and evacuated by train with hundreds of other children to the supposed safety of rural Cambridgeshire.
We were all given gas masks in cardboard boxes that were tied round our necks with bits of string. On arrival, I’ll never forget the feeling and look of utter despair on everyone’s faces as we were all lined up in rows up the grassy slope from Huntingdon station and waited to be sorted out for transport to our new host families -none of us know what was going to happen.
I was put on a coach and taken to Warboys, a quiet village in the Fens, about seven miles away. I was sent to the home of a local farmer and allocated to work with the farmhands for the grand wage of six pennies a day (when there were 240 old pennies to the pound), and I also attended the local school in a Nissan hut in the village.
Being a city kid, it was my first experience of farming life, and twice a day I would drive the herd through the village to the farm to be milked. One cow, inevitably called Daisy, always lagged behind and had to be hustled through the gate. I was also taught to do the milking and learned early on to always warm my hands first, before grabbing hold of the teats, otherwise the pale would get knocked over.
The farmer’s wife became ill and I was passed on to live with another family - the local policeman with his wife and three children who lived in a council house in the village. The winter of 1939/40 was one of the bleakest ever and my new home didn’t even have a proper toilet, just a large bucket outside the house that we all shared & was emptied once a fortnight - old newspapers passed for toilet paper! I was just appalled at this and preferred whenever possible to go into the nearby fields.
Nearby was a large black windmill full of roosting pigeons that I used to shoot with an air-rifle. One day I thought I would try and stalk the local poacher, named Roley Bowde. After about an hour-and- a-half of my sneaking after him he suddenly popped up right beside me and commented, ‘Well, I guess I’d better teach you properly’ and so I learned to become a poacher too.
Plane crashes, bombing, and strafing near Warboys
Warboys was in flat fenland and nearby were three RAF stations — a Stirling bomber station situated next to the village, a fighter base about three miles north-west at Ramsey, and Blenheim bombers were stationed about the same distance to the south-west at Wyton.
I remember one Stirling bomber crashed with a full pay-load of bombs, and a couple of Blenheims also went straight in and were totally destroyed. One day another Blenheim crash-landed near the village. We all ran over to the site but were held back by RAF Police who had to draw their guns to stop us from trying to rescue the pilot. We could see he was trapped in the cockpit trying to smash his way out of the canopy with a hatchet as the plane burst into flames and the ammunition stated to explode — sadly he didn’t make it.
On another occasion, all us school-kids were marching in column-line along the road next to the local bomber base and we had to jump in the ditch as a German aircraft machine-gunned us. I can remember the bullets pinging off the road surface — I guess they probably thought we were a column of soldiers.
The Germans then bombed the brickyard at the end of the village and I think the authorities decided that it was just too dangerous for the evacuees. So after staying in the village for over a year we were all sent home where they thought we would be much safer. I went back to my parents in Islington — just in time to catch the air-raids that were starting on the City of London!
Bombs & Rockets in London
My Father was a London policeman who was also a watchman in the City. I can remember looking at the City one night from the Archway Bridge, almost six miles away, and seeing the whole area glowing dull red with the many fires stated by the air-raids.
For some reason we never had an Anderson Shelter in our back garden but there was a bigger brick and concrete shelter nearby which we could use. Generally we didn’t bother, as the feeling of fear emanating from the people inside as the bombs exploded and the anti-aircraft guns fired was even worse than being outside. But I do recall how a cockney voice cracking a joke managed to break the tension on one particular occasion — a sense of humour is a wonderful thing!
A huge landmine was dropped not far from our house in Islington, which destroyed about a quarter of a mile of property. During another night air-raid three 2000-pound bombs were dropped in our area; one failed to go off and buried itself in about forty feet of clay. As the other two bombs whistled down I threw myself under the bed whilst my sister (who was home on leave from the A.T.S.) just pulled the covers up over her head. The resulting blast demolished the entire front off our house and knocked all the doors off their hinges. Sometime in 1945 a V-2 rocket also landed nearby in Hanley Road and did a lot of damage.
By late 1944 I was a student attending the Northern Polytechnic in Holloway Road. One day, during a break, I nipped out to buy myself a snack from one of the shops near Highbury Corner. As I approached the Tube Station, I heard the dull drone of a German Doodlebug rocket passing overhead, I looked up but couldn’t see anything. At that same moment the engine cut out and I made a dive for the ground — too late, I didn’t make it and was bumped around by the blast like a rubber ball.
I picked my self up in the swirling dust and climbed over what seemed like a mountain of rubble and twisted trolley-bus lines in a complete state of shock. The entire front of the local bank had been destroyed and pound notes were blowing about in the wind like confetti. On one side there was a tram cut completely in half by the explosion.
I felt like a zombie and just started to walk back through the wreckage towards the college. I passed a woman whose back had been pierced by a large piece of the rocket’s fuselage. It had impaled her body to a wall - she was still alive and called out ‘help me!’ But I just passed by and kept on walking — to this day I carry the guilt that I didn’t stop and hold her hand as she died — my only excuse was my state of total shock.
Victory and training for the next war
By 1945 I was still a student and an active member of the Air Training Corps (A.T.C.). One day every week, instead of studying in the library, I would go to Hendon aerodrome where I learned to fly in Dakotas and other aircraft. I passed my cross-country navigation in a Proctor.
On one flight in a Dakota the engines failed just after takeoff at about 2000 feet, we turned back & crash-landed at Hendon. I just had time to strap myself in before we ploughed into the ground and I got out relatively unscathed - the other crew members weren’t so lucky.
I volunteered for the RAF at Euston and was accepted for a commission — as by then, I had more flying hours under my belt than rest of my ATC squad put together. Unfortunately towards the end of the war there were only vacancies for ground crew and that just didn’t hold any appeal for me so I went into the army on a short-service commission.
I can remember going down to Piccadilly on V.E. Day - it was so packed with people there was no room for vehicles. I took part in the Victory Parade with all the armed services — marching under Admiralty Arch and down the Mall. We had one military band just in front of us and another immediately behind — it was almost impossible to keep in step! As we passed in front of King George VI I noticed how hollow-cheeked he looked - his face was pancaked with make-up, he appeared to be a very sick man.
For me, 1939-45 was an apprenticeship in war — I suppose I saw quite a lot of active service at a very young age before I even joined the army but it prepared me for what was to come later.
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