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Ghosts, lorries and a 'family outing'

by Genevieve

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Francis Williams
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

Francis Williams was a with the RAF for 10 years:

We’d been to Liverpool and we had to go over to the other side of Sheffield and it was winter 1941 and it was January. It had been snowing, the road was clear of snow and it was on the sides.

We climbed up through Manchester and onto what they called the Snake road. We were the only ones up there — so we thought. Then suddenly coming towards us was a lorry with unmasked headlights. Now, that wasn’t allowed in the war — two unmasked headlights. As it went past I could see the word MEX on the side and it was chain driven. It was a tanker.

It hadn’t gone past a few yards and I stopped and switched off and I said to Terry: “Did you notice anything, Terry?”
“Yes, it never made a noise!”
It was a ghost lorry! So I got out couldn’t hear a thing. No sight of any lorry and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up…
Now — you see that lamp. Well if you put that on it would melt the tar in the road.

So we put it on and an hour later we got down into Sheffield and the policeman was waiting for us and he said: “I’ve been waiting for you. You’ve been signalling to the whole German Air force where to come. What happened?”

And I said “We saw what we thought was a ghost lorry.” And he said “Oh so you’ve seen it as well have you? A lot of people have seen it but we never have. You know that’s illegal don’t you?”
I said “Yes, but we wanted to get down as quick as we could!”
Now there’s a sequel to this.

There was a letter in Country Life magazine from this notable — a Duke or an Earl, whatever he was. And he, in broad daylight in the summer, came up from Manchester, caught this lorry up going the same way as we were that day, overtook it and 3 miles further on he had engine trouble, so he pulled of the road (there’s only room for 2 lanes of traffic) pulled off into a gateway, sorted out his problem and he thought “I’ve been here 20 minutes and nothing’s passed me and that lorry couldn’t go off.”

So he went all the way back to the outskirts of Manchester — came back — caught the lorry up again and he put his story down so I sent mine in — the one I’ve just told you - and they printed it under the heading of Ghostly Wheels.

And it actually did make you feel peculiar at the time.

Talking of ghosts — in 1947 - it was a bitter winter — in January my father in law died. He lived in Edgware.

I’d got this little Morris and there was no heating in and only what you call plastic side windows it and I said to Stella you stay here with Anne I’ll go down and represent you at your father’s funeral. I got there overnight and mother said: “Well we’ll have some supper and go to bed”

I got up next morning and she said I’ll cook some breakfast and she pulled to door to and I sat in the in the dining room on the settee and suddenly the door opened and in thro the door came a figure — bent — and she had a navy blue lace thing round her head.

She walked past me went to the bookcase opened it, pulled out a book and it fell to the floor. Then she went to the French window materialised through it I saw her go down the garden past the blackcurrant bushes. A little while later Stella’s mother came in and I said: “did you see anybody?” And she said “No, nobody’s been in here” I said “Well a strange figure like a little old lady came in came past me, went to the bookcase — there’s the book on the floor.”

She opened the book and out fell a picture of this gentleman’s mother. She was a Czech and had never been to this country. She’s lived and died in Czechoslovakia — yet here she was — apparently the same person — appearing at his funeral.

In 1942, July, my daughter was 3 weeks old and Terry (Murphy) was with me this time — my escort. We were in the yard and Chief said:

“I’ve got a job for you, two. Go to so-and-so site and load up with these spares”

“Fair enough” went up, put these aircraft spares on. Nothing tall, so we didn’t need the sides up. Those sides you lowered down if you didn’t want them.

So anyway, we went and loaded up.

“Where we got to go?”
“Where’s Barnstaple?”
“It’s in Devon.”

So I got my book out, found out where Barnstaple was. And this area was about 3 miles outside Barnstaple. It’s still there today, as a training station.

I said to Terry: “We’re going to Barnstaple.”

“Good” he said.

I said: “I tell you what. I’m going to call at home and take Stella with me.”

“Good idea!” he said “We can put the pram on the trailer.”

(This is all illegal! I could have been court-martialled and shot at dawn!!)

However, we were then living in Bilston and I called round home and said to Stella “I’m going to Barnstaple do you want to come?”

And she said: “Oh yes, I’d love it” and packed a few things and a few things for Ann because she was only 3 weeks old. Terry put the pram on the trailer and he sat in the trailer for a while and Stella sat on the spare seat because in these Commer ‘artics’ the engine is between you and your passenger it comes back into the cab. It’s a snub nosed thing, isn’t it?

So, the engine came back between you and your passenger so Stella sat on that side with Ann.

And we tootled off down after we’d got this all sorted out and worked out our route down through Kidderminster, Gloucester; there were no motorways then; so we had to go through the centre of these towns and often with the QM [Queen Mary] you’d cause consternation, people got in your way; Gloucester, Bristol, Bridgwater, Minehead.

Got into Porlock about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Of course everybody came out to see what this huge 60 foot vehicle was in the village when they usually saw not much more than ponies and traps!

A lady came up to me and I said: “Can you tell me somewhere where we can stop the night?” and about a dozen people said “You can stop with me, you can stop with us, you can stop with me…” everybody was itching to give us a bed and I said to this lady: “Well, it’s very kind of you” She said: “I’m Mrs Norman and my husband is blacksmith of the town and I live in Forge Cottage and you and your wife and the young man can stop the night.”

And the village bobby was there and I said: “Can you tell me where I can leave the vehicle?”

“Sure sir, you can leave it up beside the graveyard and I’ll go and find a red lamp for the back.” “No trouble?” “No trouble at all sir, you just carry on.”

So, she gave us an evening meal, gave us a good bed for the night, gave us breakfast.
She wouldn’t take a penny for it. “No, you’re doing a good job for this country” I said: “Well I haven’t done any fighting — only for breath sometimes in the NAAFI!”
She said: “No, the fact that you lads are there helps a lot. We appreciate what you lads are trying to do.” So anyway, we said goodbye to them all and carried on.

Have you ever been to Porlock? Then you’ll know what the one in 5 is, won’t you? (or the one in 4). So there’s us with this 60 foot lorry going up this one in 4 hill and at the top there’s a hairpin bend. It’s about 500 yards, the first strip, because Porlock has never altered and it’s still narrow And we went round and climbed up this hill; climbed up and up and up and went across the top and then we had to go down into Lynmouth. That’s almost as bad as going up Porlock. I didn’t mind. I put the car into first gear and let the motion and the weight of the car take us down to the bottom.

Got into Barnstaple early afternoon, dropped Stella off with the pram and she said: “I’ll feed Anne and get myself some lunch.” and we went on to the aerodrome, loaded our spares, had lunch there, came back and then we went round to find some digs for the night because I said: “I’m not going to travel back today. It’s too much. I don’t mind but I don’t want Stella to suffer it.” So, however, we looked round and found a place for Bed and Breakfast and the lady said: “Oh it’s a young baby. We have guests in this house, you know, and I hope she won’t keep them awake with her crying.” And Stella said: “No she’s a very placid baby.” “Yes, they all say that but in the middle of the night and she starts bawling…!”

Anyhow, Anne didn’t. She did wake up at 3 o’clock but Stella quickly fed her (she used to breast feed her) and shut her up. She was full up and she went back to sleep. We were congratulated next morning!

We paid what we owed them and set off back to Stafford and I dropped her off at Wolverhampton (just outside) where we were living and that was our trip to Barnstaple. We’ve been there many times since.

The things we got up to! When we went down to Milton and it was a hot evening we’d all go bathing — we’d go to a little place called Sutton Courtney. We’d got no costumes so we’d strip off and all dive in. Good old swim get out and dry ourselves on our vest put them back on and go back to camp.

We’d often hear the Jerry bombers coming over to bomb Harwell (it’s an atomic station now) and we’d hear them coming up. Stella’s mother would make me smile. When I used to stop at Hendon for the night I’d get a train 2 stations and call in at Stella’s house and stop the night there. Night after night we’d hear the German Bombers coming and she’s say “Oh they’re not coming here tonight” I’d say “Why?” She’d say “They’re going up the other road”
And in fact — they didn’t come over our way.

This story was submitted to the People's war site by Genevieve Tudor of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Francis Willisma and has been addedd to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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