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Ken Sweet's Memories of War as a Schoolboy: Part 1 - Early War Years

by cornwallcsv

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
cornwallcsv
People in story: 
Kenneth John Sweet; William St.Austell Sweet; Marion Ready; Henry Welch; Arthur Ash; Auntie Dot Job; Evan Tucker; Edgar Tucker; Albert Wandby; Alma Wandby; Bessie Potter; Jim Potter; Hilda & Fred Bishop; Mr. Scott; David Poniatowski.
Location of story: 
Bethel, St. Austell and surrounding area.
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4519181
Contributed on: 
22 July 2005

This story has been written onto the BBC People’s War site by CSV Storygatherer Robin.D.Bailey on behalf of the author Kenneth John Sweet. They fully understand the terms and conditions of the site.

I had been at school (Carclaze Infants), just a year when the second world war broke out. I remember listening to the radio (it was wireless then), to hear Mr. Chamberlain say that an ultimatum had been given to Germany that she must give an assurance she would not invade Poland. “I have to say that no such assurance has been received, and that therefore, a state of war exists between this country and Germany.” he said, or something similar.

For many months it was difficult to realise that we were at war. Some people built air-raid shelters in their gardens; Some were built in school playgrounds. Blackout blinds were fitted to windows in houses and offices. Blast walls of sandbags were built outside the windows of public buildings, and the window panes were taped with sticky brown paper to reduce the danger from flying glass splinters.

My father, William St. Austell Sweet, had to fit louvred deflectors to his cars headlights, and the edges of the car’s wings and running boards were painted with a two inch wide white strip.

Father was an air-raid warden, he was issued with a tin hat with a peculiar high dome, and a stirrup pump, together with an A.R.P. arm-band. He was also given special responsibilty to record and plot the positions of bomb blasts, and to find accommodation for people rendered homeless by enemy action.

My first realisation of the horror of war came when Marion Ready, who was in my class at school,lost her Daddy, who was serving on a minesweeper. Others followed, Henry Welch, from Bethel, went down with one of our battleships. Arthur Ash, from Holmbush, an only child, took off in his unarmed Spitfire, loaded down with the new experimental radar equipment and was never seen again. - I remember, while visiting Auntie Dot Job, who lived next door but one to the Ash household, I started to sing “Coming in on a wing and a prayer”, and being told to stop, as Auntie Dot began to cry.

There was nineteen year old Evan Tucker, from Bethel, a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber who came to visit us on a brief leave, in his sergeant’s uniform. - I remember him leaning against the mantle in our living room and telling us that every time he took off on a mission, he knew he was not coming back, but please not to tell his parents. Only days later we learned that he had been lost when his Lancaster collided with another over their German target. The other Lancaster, although badly damaged, limped home; but Evan’s body was never found. I sat next to Evan’s father, Edgar, in Bethel chapel choir, and well remember dear Edgar silently sobbing next to me after Evan was reported missing. From that time on, Edgar could not bear to have Evan’s photograph displayed, as he felt the loss too keenly.

London began to suffer badly from bombing, as a consequence of which the Forest Gate School was evacuated to Bethel. We took in Alma and Robert Wandby, and for a time, one of their teachers, Bessie Potter and her brother Jim. The day the evacuees arrived, the Sunday Schoolroom was used as a reception centre. While we were waiting for the arrival of the train, a Heinkel 111 was circling high over Par. I pointed it out to Charlie Gribble, the chief air-raid warden, but he dismissed me scornfully “Do you think”, he said, “that a German plane would be allowed to remain over England unmolested, as this one has been?” When the train pulled into St. Austell Station, it was followed in by the Heinkel ( for I had been right as to its identity) and it dropped a stick of bombs across the railway line. A house in Alexandra Road was totally destroyed, and a couple of bombs exploded in the Goods Yard on the other side of the railway line. There were no injuries, although a lady in the house in Alexandra Road had a very lucky escape.

I had an even closer encounter with a Heinkel 111, which flew over our house so low I could see it’s insignia and crew quite clearly. It was no more than 500 feet up, and one engine was trailing black smoke. It made it as far as Lostwithiel, where it flew over the lawn of Bocconoc House, firing a flare to assess the wind speed and direction, clearly intending to attempt a landing. However, it was unable to maintain height on the approach and crashed into the trees, killing all on board. Charlie Gribble (yes, the same one!) was in charge of the ambulance which attended the scene, and he told me there must have been four crew as he had found seven legs! He also said he had picked up an arm torn off at the shoulder, and claimed he had been able to make the fingers move by pulling the tendons exposed in the shoulder.

American B17 “Flying Fortresses”, used to formate over us until they were all assembled, then head out over the Channel. As they crossed the coast, the gunners would fire a short burst to test their guns. One morning I counted 240 go out, all in their neat squadron formations, but only 167 came back. Many of these survivors were terribly damaged and some on fire. One had half a wing missing from the outboard engine outward; Several had no tail turret left, and one had no tail turret or rudder. Gaping holes were obvious through wings and fuselages and there must have been absolute carnage on board. Many of these damaged planes must have been virtually impossible to control, and it would have taken immense skill to bring them down safely.

Although not at the same time as our evacuees, we took in Hilda (I don’t recall her surname) a refugee from Guernsey, who had managed to get away before the German occupation. Her boyfriend, Fred Bishop, made his escape after the occupation with a group of others, in an open fishing boat. Fred immediately joined the D.C.L.I. (The Devon & Cornwall Light Infantry) to do his bit against the Germans, and he and Hilda were married from our house. Fred was a driver, and once took me for a short ride in his 30 cwt. truck, which had HILDA neatly stencilled under the windscreen. Hilda was devoutly Christian, and was absolutely confident that Fred would come through the war safely, because she prayed every day for him. He went in on D-Day with the Normandy landings, and on the second day took a shrapnel wound in the head, from which he died the following day. Hilda was devastated, as were we all.

One day a group of us from Bethel spent a day on Crinnis Beach, and had just started our walk home when two Focke-Wulf fighter bombers roared in from the sea low over our heads. Seconds later we heard bombs exploding, and then the two planes reappeared over Par heading for the Gribbin. Over Polkerris they met a Beaufighter almost head on, coming in from the Channel. The two Germans fired at the approaching Beaufighter and we could see the cannon shells exploding all around it. The Focke-Wulfs turned chasing the Beaufighter, which came right over our heads, the Germans continuing to fire at it until over Charlestown where they broke off their attack and headed back out to sea. We learned afterwards that the Beaufighter had returned to base safely, and had been unable to return fire, having expended all their ammunition in a previous action over the Channel. The Focke-Wulf’s bombs had hit Landreath Place, St. Blazey, doing fairly extensive damage and killing one elderly gentleman, Mr Scott. Because of Landreath Place’s unsavoury reputation, it was put about at the time that the bombs had done £10,000 worth of improvements! They had also hit Glenview Terrace at Tywardreath, flattening a house and killing Mrs Powell Barnecutt.

Bombs were dropped in the grounds of The Grove at Charlestown, bringing down the ceilings in the big house. This occurred while I was at Carclaze School, where we clearly heard the explosion and felt the vibration. I was intrigued to notice that the dust had jumped out of the joints in the parquet floors, creating new block outlines 4” from the actual blocks. I concluded the whole of the ground between Charlestown and Carclaze must have moved by 4”. I mentioned it to my mother when I got home, and she took me upstairs to show me that the same thing had happened to us.

“Jerry” also bombed the china clay dries on Par Moor, no doubt thinking they were factories. Little damage was done apart from the loss of a few roof slates. Crinnis Beach and the sea were quite heavily bombed, presumably by bomber crews detailed to attack the heavily defended
airfields near the north coast, who decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Many German pilots did, however, press home their attacks, and I spent many nights under the dining room table and later with the whole family in the cupboard under the stairs, listening to the distant explosions and the drone of unsynchronised engines of the German bombers passing overhead.

Another wartime memory is the trip to Plymouth by train with my grandfather to see the bomb damage, which, in the city centre, was very nearly total. From our home at Bethel, we were able to watch the blitz on Plymouth, with the fires clearly visible, along with the searchlights,
anti-aircraft fire and bomb bursts. Sometimes the searchlights would pick up a German plane, then more and more of the intense beams of light would focus in to aid the ack-ack gunners; although we never saw one shot down. On another occasion we went down to St. Mawes, and looking out across towards Falmouth, the estuary was full of the masts and funnels of sunken ships.

We regularly saw a German Fieseler Storch plane circling in the Channel off Chapel Point, Mevagissey. It was always very low, possibly to avoid radar detection, and was never attacked. It was surmised that the plane was spotting ships as possible targets for U-boats, as eventually a tanker was torpedoed and sunk, the oil continuing to burn on the surface for many days afterwards. My father was called to Pridmouth Beach to organise the recovery and burial of the lower half of a man’s body which had been washed up on the beach, and was assumed to have been from the tanker crew.

Part of Dad’s job was arranging the certification and hospitalisation of mentally disturbed people. He was called to Par Beach one day, where a lady had entered a minefield. The very lucky lady walked right through the minefield and emerged safely at the other end, where she was taken into protective custody. Not everyone was so lucky. A boy and girl picking primroses above Pridmouth Beach, saw better pickings beyond a fence. Climbing a tree outside the fence, they dropped from a bough inside the fence, where they landed on a mine and were instantly killed.

One day Dad and I were going to Mevagissey to do some fishing. As we passed through Nansladron we could see, in a field on the crest of the hill, the tail and fuselage of a Spitfire, inclined at about 45 degrees to the ground. We were later told that the pilot had been hurt in an action over the Channel, but had been able to bring his plane back for a crash landing. Sadly the pilot died in his cockpit before help could reach him.

While we were fishing from Mevagissey pierhead, two Focke-Wulfs came in low from the sea, banked up over the cliffs to Pentewan, dropped their bombs and returned out to sea. Dad commandeered a service bus in Mevagissey to take us to Pentewan, where the Methodist Chapel had been flattened, and some houses on the quay had lost their roofs.

Many French fishermen made clandestine trips across the Channel at great personal risk. One boat, the “Oiseau de la Tempete” put into Mevagissey with seven men on board. One, David Poniatowski, was an agent who carried several documents and letters including a letter of introduction to the Governor of the Bank of England. He was whisked off to London, and Dad arranged accommodation and new clothing for the others. They returned to France some days later in another French fishing boat, the “Surcouf”. Dad was very impressed by their bravery, and he kept all their names and addresses. When I visited Brittany in 1975, I enquired after them, only to be told the “Surcouf” had sunk before reaching Brittany, and only one had survived. The families were quite touched to know their men were still remembered in Cornwall some 32 years later. Dad cried when I told him so many of the fishermen had lost their lives.

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