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15 October 2014
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Donald Barton Chepstow Memories

by Chepstow Drill Hall

Contributed by 
Chepstow Drill Hall
People in story: 
Donald Barton
Location of story: 
Chepstow
Article ID: 
A4065077
Contributed on: 
14 May 2005

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

Army

Both Mr Westcott (Chemistry) and Mr Ball (Mathmatics) were drafted into war work as civilians. I believe Mr Westcott worked on a device for rendering (sea) mines ineffective.

A small US Army Air Corps unit with a few Piper Cub spotter/communications aircraft. For most of the war, starting in ‘39, the racecourse was used as an occasional airfield, and numbers of replacement bombers dispersed along the edges of neighbouring woodland across the Chepstow - St Arvans road. These included Wellington and Whitby, first-line bombers early in the war, and later ??Boston medium bombers from US. I and my friend Terry O’Neill climbed into all three types over an extended period (His father Barney was the Chairman of District Council and later Monmouthshire County Council - in which capacity officiated at opening of Severn Bridge). On one of the occasions referred to here, Terry O’Neil and I were arrested by a RAF policeman as we clambered out of a Wellington bomber; and we were taken to the guard room, one of the little lodges of Piercefield House. The Guard Commander phoned Mr Robinson (Headmaster of Larkfield) to establish our credentials).

Home Life

Within four days of outbreak of war my mother decided it would be prudent to move away from London. Father stayed behind - was a clerk at Woolwich Arsenal - mother sister and I, we stayed about a month in Swindon, whence mother sought a secretarial post further west. She settled on employment with a firm of Chepstow solicitors, Evans & Ellis, then presided over by a Col Evill. After a week or two in lodgings on the Hardwick Estate, we found a couple of rooms at Tutshill, and some months later a flat in Chepstow High Street. In the severe winter of 39-40 it was an icy passage from Tutshill to Larkfield, with ice flows in the river Wye.

A bomb fell on the valley side just above Chepstow Castle. (Holsgrove and I climbed/slid down the valley side, spotted a lump of metal in the mud and retrieved it. It was the nose of what we were later told was a 500 kilo bomb. We retrieved it and lugged it up to the field, (now occupied by the school at the top of the Castle Dell, then partly given over to wartime allotments, half of one which was allocated to the Barton family - I being the gardener) and bore it proudly along to the Police Station in Albion Square)

School

There were occasional day-time air-raid warnings when Larkfield pupils dispersed to houses along main road and up St Lawrence Road. Myself being instructed to the cellar of a cottage opposite, on the site of the Three Rivers Hotel. Fire-watching at school was undertaken on a rota basis by Chepstow-based staff and fifth and sixth formers, including myself . This was for the purpose of
a. reporting a dealing with fire in the event of an incendiary bomb hitting the school.
b. reporting any similar fire seen from the school. We operated in pairs, sleeping/keeping awake in turn.

The ratio of sixth formers to the rest was small, and most pupils left after School Certificate; some after three years to take up apprenticeships. As my friends Gerald Holsgrove who went down to Fairfields and Philip Perry Portskewett GWR at Swindon. Whither Terry O’Neil and I cycled to visit him for a few days in the summer of ‘43 or ‘44 crossing the Severn on the ferry from Beachley to Aust.

In 1939, only a handful mostly boys in the 6th form. Two remembered - Woodgate, son of local corn merchant I believe and Tom ? Foster/Forster who volunteered for the RAF and was killed fairly early on in his RAF career, having left school in the summer of ‘40. I remember him as being quite protective and supportive when I was a new boy. Another aircrew casualty towards the end of the war was David Holloway who lived down Bridge Street. Rumour had it that his plane was struck by lightening. Not sure but believe a youngster called Ballinger was also a RAF casualty. ‘Gandy Lewis’ our demon bowler went into the Fleet Air Army, as did Ronald Matter who was a year ahead of me. In my last year I recollect an ex-pupil turned up wearing the uniform and wings of an army glider sergeant pilot.

We were voluntary evacuees, a Lancashire family but resident in a north west suburb of London in September 1939. I had won a scholarship, that is a free place at Ealing County Grammar School. Late in October’39 my sister Pat started at the elementary school near to the Castle and I was admitted to 2A Larkfield, after an interview with the wartime acting head, William Robinson, affectionately known as Tubby or Barrel. I was a bit of an outsider initially though I never experienced any hostility, just a bit of relatively gentle bullying - banged into holly-bush etc. But brief, more a rite of passage than anything else, no problem! Until then I’d always worn shorts, both because at elementary school and by preference, I had no urge to get into long trousers as de rigeur at Larkfield. I thought long trousers premature on twelve to thirteen year olds, but in retrospect I suppose it would have been long trousers at Ealing Grammar School as well. Anyway, I definitely wore shorts for a while, but had succumbed by end of first term. I was half a term behind, but caught up by the end of term, and remained at Larkfield until 1945 after HSC. (Higher Certificate?)

In 1939 no school meals were provided. You took sandwiches and a hot drink was provided, and you had them in the cookery room. School milk was routine, one third pint each per day. Later in the war a school kitchen/canteen in a prefab, with main course and pudding at a nominal charge ? six pence ( about 80p at present values).

Probably after the blitz started, in which case late 1940 or early ‘41 Ham School (either secondary school or what was then called a technical school - what was later re-invented as secondary modern) came to share Larkfield building. With the effect that we had lessons in the morning, with the afternoons free. These arrangements didn’t seem to affect CWB (Certificate of Welsh Board) exam results. They didn’t stay throughout war, and returned to London, probably in ‘44, after bombing tailed off. Although a recent temporary Londoner, I’d always been a countryman at heart. There was little mingling with the townies and country boys; though as much as anything because we were at school at different times. On the whole we boys didn’t have much to do with girls, but I was rather taken by one of the evacuees Maude, but male solidarity ensured that I didn’t do anything about it apart from the occasional chat.

Few, if any of the staff had cars, and in those days few parents. In any case, with petrol rationing it would not have been wasted on taking children to school. Children within walking/cycling distance got to school under their own steam, probably with a maximum of two to three miles unless they were in an area not served by school buses, provided by the Red and White Bus Company. These brought pupils in from the outskirts of Newport, Penhow, Caerwent, Rogiet, Magor, Portskewett, Crick, Earlswood, Shirenewton etc. I’m not sure what happened re the Wye Valley and Devauden/Trellech direction. The most distant youngster at the time was another Whittaker who daily travelled from Goldcliffe - Newport - Larkfield return

Again, making comparisons, we were relatively backward in coming forward sexually. This reinforced by a marked loyalty to one’s own sex. Not withstanding that we were in a mixed school, but boys did their things together, girls likewise. And up to and including the fifth form a lad who showed any overt interest in girls was deemed a bit wet. Thus the only boy who went out of his way to seek the company of girls, one Gerry Withers of Earlswood; who was seen as having let the side down. Though I suspect there were also suppressed twinges of envy at his facility with girls. Even in the sixth, where because we had all chosen to stay on at school there was a greater sense of camaraderie between the sexs, boys tended to stick together, and girls likewise. I don’t recollect any school romances or parings off. Nor any instances of pregnancy.

Sport: Washing facilities were primitive. I recollect without pleasure coming in from a cold wet game of rugby, and taking it in turns for a quick dip in warmish water in a tin bath in the boy’s cloakroom.

The Town

I mentioned that Anton Edwards (French Master at Larkfield) was an Officer in the Home Guard - Captain I think. At the time we lived in a flat in High Street and I remember watching the Home Guard taking part in an exercise with the army. There was a great deal of activity in Beaufort Square, with blank rounds and thunder flashes going off. I dashed out to get a closer look, just as as couple of tear gas grenades went off! and was reduced to tears as it drifted across the square. I saw Anton engaged in a robust hand to hand struggle with a member of the opposing faction, though only after he had been ‘shot’ several times. I was very impressed!

From time to time the government engaged in fund-raising schemes - via National Savings - to support the war effort. Hence a ‘War Weapons Week’ and I believe a ‘Wings for Victory Week’. I seem to remember that a Spitfire came in at about twelve thousand pounds. Larkfield School was actively engaged in these events, with staff peddling six penny savings stamps; and pupils contributed to competitions and displays, organised I think by the local National Savings Certificates/Town Council. I remember contributing painted posters on two occasions, one featuring minesweepers in the North Sea, the other an army jeep patrol in Burma.

There were also National Days of Prayer, invariably preceded by a church parade featuring contingents of whatever armed forces were in the vicinity at the time, plus Home Guard and their band, the ATC (led by Mr Robinson) and our drum and bugle band, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, WVS, Red Cross et al. There could be as many as three bands, not spaced sufficiently far apart and playing three different tunes, all very cacophonous and the subject of some friction.

During the mid-war years a useful money earner (especially as half-time school gave plenty for extra-curricular activities) was collecting rose hips and conkers ‘for the war effort’. The rose hips were tranformed into rose-hip syrup (Vitamin C), the conkers, I admit I don’t know what---oil/cattle cake, both industrially of course. We were paid six pence a pound for rose hips and two shillings and six pence (half a crown) for 50lbs of conkers. Which latter could just about be balanced on and tied to the carrier on one’s bike.

In wartime, with the blackout and servicemen footloose and fancy free I don’t recollect any incidents of violence, rape, abduction etc. As a youngster one always felt safe. Standards of conduct seemed to be higher than now. Yes, there was a certain amount of brawling amongst servicemen at chucking out time, and after a hop at the Public Hall; usually jealousy re a female, but military police, ‘British Redcaps’ sorted things out. American M.P.’s ‘Snowballs’ (white hats) were engaged mainly in anticipating/dealing with friction between white and black U.S. troops. I don’t think there were many British Military personnel based in/near Chepstow in the build-up to D. Day, so there weren’t any of the pitched battles between British and American troops that took place elsewhere.

Voluntary Organisations

An ATC unit was set up at Larkfield in mid-war, using the pre-fab built in the grounds. Here we admired a Cirrus Major engine, studied aircraft recognition charts, and practised DR (Dead reckoning - that is working out positions from point of departure, based on air-speed, direction, and direction/speed of wind) navigation and morse. Mr Robinson was the C.O., assisted by a retired man whose name I don’t recollect, and Barney O’Neil as an excellent PT instructor. We paraded a couple of times a week, had drill for quarter of an hour, then as above. Few from Larkfield - i.e. comparatively few townies, I remember Owen Robinson belonged. I think he succeeded via a bogus phone call, in getting an aero engine supplied to the ATC by purporting to be from the Air Ministry; what we really wanted was a glider! There was another ATC squadron at the time also comprising schoolboys and boys who were working or apprenticed. We got wind of an intended assault one evening, prepared our defences and sent the attackers off; astonished by the vigour and ruthlessness of our defence. Congratulated by Barney O’Neill and having acquitted selves well. Owen Robinson was amongst the Larkfield contingent, and also a youngster called Rowlands whose father had a small holding just beyond Penhow/Dinham.

The uncritical patriotism of the time, led me to take a day off from school late in ‘44 to volunteer for the RAF, 17 and a quarter being the minimum age at the time. Call-up would have been deferred until after HSC (Higher Certificate?) I left Larkfield July’45, and the following month (Mr Robinson having promoted me to Sergeant for the occasion) attended a residential aircrew selection board at Bridgenorth. Whilst there the Japanese war ended, as did the aircrew recruitment. In retrospect I’m not sorry - Offered SH S commission. (ie five years, which was longer that I was prepared to commit for, with other ambitions in mind - university and Colonial Service, so awaited call-up into army).

The Larkfield squadron visited several airfields at Leominster, St Athans and Withybush at Haverfordwest. I only attended the last, for a week in the summer holidays of 1944. We spent a good deal of time perfecting, as we thought, our flying techniques in a trainer firmly attached to the ground. Most of us went up in a coastal command Wellington, including Barney O’Neill who risked a night flight; his pilot misjudged his landing and ripped some fabric off the bottom of his plane with the perimeter fence of the airfield.

Wartime Defences

Perhaps half way through, floating targets were moored in the Severn, presumably in mid-channel and were more or less opposite Severn Beach. These were used by rocket-firing aircraft, visible from Larkfield School, and particularly by rocket-firing Bristol Bunfighters and later Typhoons.

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