- Contributed by
- Dunstable Town Centre
- People in story:
- Morris Cook
- Location of story:
- Dunstable, Bedfordshire
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 February 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War site by the Dunstable At War Team on behalf of Morris Cook and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I was 15 when war was declared and in the lower 5th at Dunstable grammar school. When the announcement came over the radio (then wireless), I was with the family digging an underground shelter to house us and the neighbours. The roof was made out of railway sleepers and corrugated iron sheets with about a foot of earth on top. It had concrete steps at either end in case one got blocked and each had a heavy wooden sloping door, which lifted up.
I started an indentured apprenticeship at Vauxhall in May 1940. The weekly ticket for the bus from Dunstable town hall to Vauxhall cost 3 shillings and sixpence for 12 journeys of 7 miles. Petrol was rationed and so the buses were very busy. They were mostly rear entry double deckers with a large low platform and a vertical grab rail. The bus did not always stop because passengers leapt on and off as the bus slowed but I never saw or heard of any casualties. The homeward journeys were the most crowded and the bus was full when no more passengers could crowd into the gangways, upstairs or down or onto the platform. The platform would scrape the road on sharp bends and passengers sometimes felt the rear wheels bump the under body. The conductor was seldom able to fight his way through this crowd to collect fares, so for those without weekly tickets he took the money as passengers got off, no-one waited for a ticket so it was up to the conductor how many tickets he issued afterwards.
I was caught up in an unannounced bombing raid in August 1940. I was in the apprentice workshop and was approaching the open doors to see what was causing all the rattling when I found myself colliding backwards with my workbench about 30 feet behind me. The commissionaire who’s hut was near those doors came running in shouting “don’t go out, they are machine gunning”, so we crouched under our benches until assured all was quiet and then trooped out to the shelters. One bomb had fallen in the road which our building fronted; the front entrance commissionaire was killed and some apprentices were injured by shrapnel and flying glass as the wooden shuttering over the windows was all blown away. As there had been no warning there was also no “all clear” so when it was time to go home we peered out, all seemed to be quiet so we headed home. My bus ticket and other items I carried were in my jacket in my locker and I wanted to change out of my overalls into my jacket. The entrances were closed and guarded as there were unexploded bombs around. I found a pair of doors which were barred and never used had been blown open and so I got through there and changed. We stayed home until the unexploded bombs had been cleared and then returned to work. On return I was informed that one unexploded bomb was found leaning against the wall behind my locker.
By the time I was 18 and due for call up I was in a reserved occupation making components for, and later testing the engines for the Churchill tank which had been designed, tested, tooled up and introduced into production within 12 months - just imagine that in peacetime! I was therefore enlisted in the Home Guard. I was in H Company with headquarters in a shop near where the Book Castle (book shop in Dunstable) is today. With Home Guard duties 1 or 2 evenings a week, weekend exercises and camps, night school classes at the Luton Tech 3 evenings a week and homework, it did not leave much time for anything else, but I lived in Friars Walk and was asked if I would turn out for fire watch duty during raids whenever possible, as many of the residents were elderly.
One Sunday morning we had been on manoeuvres on Dunstable Downs and the sergeant in charge decided he would march us back down West Street. He proudly marched in front shouting “left, right, left, right” to keep us in step when two of our party decided it was time to do a tap dance with their studded boots. I think the sergeant was disappointed!
After about a year in the Home Guard fighting unit I was transferred to a new medical unit. We met every Thursday evening in a nissen hut at Delco’s where we more or less followed the St. John’s instructions book. After these sessions we mostly trooped into the canteen for the 6d. Thursday hop. This was better than crawling through stinging nettles in wet fields but we had to attend weekend camps and the firing range and do night guard duties.
I only had to apply my medical “skills” twice, once to put iodine and a plaster on an officer’s leg after he got stabbed by a spike of barber wire, when climbing over a fence and once at the firing range, when another officer got grazed by a ricochet. I thought I was going to be busy one morning at the firing range, which was in a disused chalk pit at the top of French’s Avenue when a Sten gun had been acquired and members were told to take a single shot each at a dummy. One private’s gun got stuck on “automatic”; he was holding it on his right and the force of the continued backlash was turning him round to the right. Those on that side very quickly scattered and luckily the ammunition ran out before anyone was hit.
The one-man night patrols were rather grim, as we had to keep awake and on our feet for most of them before and after a day’s work. Some of the places I guarded included the old Post Office in High Street North, Dunstable, the Home Guard headquarters, which were in the “Guest house” on Dunstable Downs, (the original golf club and now a residence) and the vehicle park at the Rifle Volunteer (later the Windsock and now housing), which was the headquarters of a film unit.
At the Guesthouse I was allowed to “sleep” on a straw mattress on the tiled floor with one blanket. Unfortunately it backed onto the old chalk pit used for rubbish dumping and the rats ran all over my blanket. Before I settled down one night the phone rang in the next room, I went and answered it but it was connected to a box full of terminals, which formed some sort of exchange. I had not been told of this and had not had a clue what did what. The only person I was able to speak to was the operator who told me that someone from H Co. headquarters was ringing me. The HQ could only speak to the operator and so could I, so she passed on their message and my reply. Luckily that was in the days when there were human beings in the system.
As the Rifle Volunteer I had to stand at the gate with a loaded rifle with orders to point the bayonet at anyone who came to the gate and say “halt, or I fire”. About 3 am in the morning the silence was broken by footsteps clonking up West Street. I got ready and waited, they gradually got nearer and eventually an army officer arrived and started to open the gate. I did my “pointing of the bayonet and threatening to fire” performance, whereupon the officer continued to open the gate and said “It’s alright I live here”. I had not got the heart to shoot him so I stepped back and let him in. I did not think to ask him what he had been up to until 3 am.
After the war I was glad to sleep in my own bed without having to listen for the siren and get up for fire watch duty. It was some years before rationing ended and when I got married in 1947 we could only have furniture, floor coverings, bedding and curtains etc, a bit at a time, as the coupons were released. Just as well as we could not have afforded any more anyway!
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