- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Betty Hockey
- Location of story:
- Southern Command Area
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 February 2005
I was stationed at Calshot with my husband and small daughter when WWII broke out and we were just on the verge of being sent to Singapore.
My husband was sent off to the Middle East and I went back to live with my parents. Time dragged and I felt I should do some type of War work as so many were doing. First I went to an Army Record Office but did not care for being in an inside job and as jobs were plentiful I was able to take my pick, which coincided nicely with the care of my daughter.
I was fortunate enough to try my hand at driving a small van that was going round the various garages collecting tyres for retreading, as they did in those days.
Going around the countryside made me aware of all the Camps, Garrisons and Units, as well as the many troops under canvas which sprang up all over. I also quickly realised that my coverage of garages was well within the Southern Command area, so why not start running a Concert Party to keep the troops entertained. The advert in a local paper brought a host of people all urgently wanting to join. I decided eventually upon 16 local artistes. We hired a hall, pooled our resources and talents and duly set off on our first show, calling ourselves the ‘Nonstops,’ merely because we ran through a two hour show without stopping. This was done for a purpose. Not having a break the soldiers, sailors and airmen had no excuse to rush off to the bar and perhaps not return!
We need not have worried on that score because they all enjoyed our shows so much and ALWAYS begged us to return.
We were a large Concert Party, much larger than the average ENSA shows, so with 16 artistes we had every type of act one could wish for.
Amongst us we were also lucky to have someone who was an electrician so made a set of lights run by a generator which enabled us to do a few shows in the ‘field.’ We also had a commercial artist who made all the scenery etc. We were a well dressed show, although any sort of material was difficult to obtain because it was rationed. However, with Grannies attics and very generous people we got by. Imagine our joy though when we were presented with an entire parachute. But being silk it would not dye. We found out that if steeped in a bucket of water with at least 20 dyes, a panel at a time, in about 10 days it produced a very nice pastel shade. Consequently the girls had long dresses and the boys shirts etc. Almost everybody did ‘make do and mend’ turning two articles into one to ring the changes.
I was the naughty one doing Can-can, seven veils and fan dance etc.
The fan dance had to be aborted somewhere along the line as ostrich feathers were not obtained. A great pity because it obviously was very much required by the lads. The seven veils did prove another problem as each veil was tossed out into the audience, never to return I fear. We had to resort to tearing up anything we could find to keep the constant flow needed. Again, Grannies attics came to the fore and even old sheets and blackout curtains had to be utilised.
The Can-can of course created the most problems as in those days it was not considered ‘nice.’ One had to go to France if needing to see the Folly Bergere. But the boys adored it and it was no problem to keep up the endless supply of black stockings as the Yanks produced a ready supply. They would mail back home and so the supply was kept going.
Each one of the Concert Party were daytime War workers of some type, so as we performed approximately five nights per week, you can imagine we did not get home until the early hours of the morning, yet each one of us never failed to turn up for work the following day at 8.30 am. Yes, it was tiring, but we also loved doing it. You see, each of the cast were people who would have loved to join the Forces, but were prevented from doing so because they could not get released from the important War work they were doing, so this was the nearest thing they could get to serving their country by enlisting.
Petrol was difficult as our private ration could not be used for such a purpose and we only received a very small amount from the Army etc. We travelled in cars headed by a Canadian Staff Car towing a trailer full of scenery and props. But if problems arose we had authorisation to hire a coach or the Unit would send in a 10 ton truck for us. This we stayed clear of after a 10 ton truck was sent in from an American Unit to take us to Salisbury Plain. Unfortunately there was a coloured truck driver at the wheel who seemed to love mounting the grass verges etc, etc, and as they had thoughtfully — or so they thought — equipped the truck with 16 NAFFI type arm chairs — on castors????, we were all pretty black and blue when we arrived. It was like a roller coaster. We could not stop or attract the driver as the cabs were separated from the driving cab then. However, they did have the grace to send us back by staff cars thank goodness.
We had many near misses of course. When there was a red alert we just went down into the shelters and carried on the best we could with the boys.
At one camp we arrived by coach and as we were late getting there we decided to change in the coach on the way which meant we had all our clothing on the coach which was just as well and very lucky too. The theatre had been hit when we returned. For some reason they piled us into the coach and told the driver to get us off the Camp, no mean feat for the driver as there was an alert on which meant he had to douse his lights, and so fumbled his way to a nearby clump of trees and there we stayed until the All Clear went.
There were also many funny stories along the way as well as the sadness.
We did a show on the Lyndhurst Bealieu road for the troops just prior to D-Day. They were literally wallowing in mud in the New Forest poor things. It was what was termed as a ‘sealed Camp’ which meant nobody was supposed to get in, nor could they get out, so we considered these were all the more deserving than those in Camps or Garrisons. We rendezvoused with the inevitable Military Police on motor cycle in the nearest pub to where they were camped, but on arrival naturally needed the loo. The entertainment officer went red in the face but stated that he had not though of that. However, we said not to worry, we will get ready. Well, where these lads managed to produce a huge marquee, complete with stage and even curtains from, we shall never know, but a fully equipped theatre atmosphere was certainly set. The only thing being, that on arrival we had to walk down the aisle though all the lads, up over the stage and down onto a laced up area for a dressing room. Once there completely trapped of course.
We were just about to open the show when we heard a terrific noise and laughter from the audience. If only we had had a cine in those days it would have been perfect, because down the aisle marched four Rookies, one with a pail of water, one with a seat, one with a bucket and the last one with a loo roll. What the Officer expected us to do with those articles I do not know, but at least he had done his best.
Straight from our work we travelled to the Camps etc in rain, hail, fog and snow. When it snowed we had to don chains on the tyres because they were all down to the canvas and even some with no rubber at all.
The A.A. Association was very good to us and would ring me in the morning to hear which road we would be taking and somewhere along that line they would come across us, nearly always with one of the cars having a punctured tyre. They would swap it over and we were on our way. Upon arrival at the Camps two soldiers would be waiting and not saying a word would look in the boots of the cars and immediately mend the puncture. So was the vast spirit of all being completely ‘together’ in those dark days. Everybody helped everybody. If somebody in your street was getting married all would give a spoonful of sugar for the cake or some such thing to help. All these things were on a very tight ration with not enough for said family, but everybody would give of their ALL.
If only the world was like that today. Unfortunately it takes a war or some disaster to make people rally round, but even so there is not the same spirit I fear. That sort of thing can never be captured again I imagine.
This is only a touch of the iceberg to give you a little insight of those dark days, but what followed is even more inspiring.
It was around 1970 I guess when I remarked to a friend and wondered what had happened to all the Naval Ships and Shore Bases where we gave shows. You see we carried on entertaining the Forces until 1948 when television was beginning to make it’s mark, so we decided to stop on a high note and went our ways — some of course keeping in touch for a while.
This friend suggested I made a list and send it to the Admiralty which I duly did, receiving a whole pile of bumph back in return. All very interesting, telling me what had happened to each ship, whether bombed, sunk or scrapped, and also information on the Shore Bases. They suggested that I may like to see an existing Base and duly sent me to HMS Osprey in Portland, now long gone of course. I had a truly remarkable day being petted and pampered by our present day Forces. Yet these were only the sons and perhaps the grandsons of those we helped keep up the moral of during WWII. I was treated as if the Queen by all and still am these 35 years later. Over these years I have revisited all the still existing Bases, Units, Camps etc. Certainly welcomed with open arms each time I visit as I now do on a pretty regular basis.
This has enabled me to drive trucks, tanks, hovercraft, fire engines, huge forklifts, driven all the Royal Marines craft, ‘talked’ down a plane, have been in many helicopters etc, fired all sorts of guns and such like.
Gradually other things have followed and I now find myself, at the age of 88 years organising coach trips for veterans to visit all the Warships, Regiments etc. They love these outings as some have not trodden on military soil for 60 odd years and are amazed at how the Forces live in these present days. A far cry from the old Barrack room with concrete floor, no sheets on the beds, nor curtains at the windows and many outdoor ablutions. I just love to see the expressions on their faces.
I have also been very, very fortunate as the Royal Marines took me to the Falklands some nine years ago. How many civilians have had such a treat?
We had seven days in the Falklands and four days in Assencion which brought to mind how on earth did they run a War in the Falklands, with nowhere to hide? It certainly put a different aspect on it from my point of view. There are no buses or trees, just merely couch grass. We had to take army rations, sleeping bags etc, as the helicopters sometimes cannot get back to be picked up due to the weather conditions. Fog can spring up at any time and last for maybe three or four days. All very eerie, as I questioned where we would sleep and told — on the ground anyway. My goodness had it happened it certainly would have been cold. As it was I had on two very thick woolly sweaters, my anorak, PLUS an army anorak and believe me I was still cold.
The penguins and the wildlife was terrific and at one solitary Unit we visited there was only one soldier amongst ten who truly loved being there. The others could not wait for their 12 week stint to end. This one was doing his 7th spell and kept putting in to go. He just wallowed in the wildlife.
Assencion was the opposite. Just as hot as the Falklands was cold. But to see the highly coloured parrot type birds flying around free was a tremendous sight.
I am now being asked what my next challenge may be, but I feel that I have done mostly everything and seen so much, that I would be hard pushed to think of another. Maybe, if a new pair of legs could be found for me, I may think differently. But for now I am engaged in dressing large teddy bears, dressed as sailors and soldiers etc for the Ships and Regiments to dispose of for their various charities. This way I know my efforts are not in vain because there are no admin charges to be deducted. Some of these toys are now finding there way to less fortunate children in Bosnia, Africa etc. The Ships, when out on deployment all rally round and restore maybe a school or some such thing, or have a party on board for the kiddies at an orphanage. Then the toys are given and one can imagine the faces on these dear little souls who have so little. Yes, I have much more to do as yet. At least I have about 60 odd teddies to dress in time for next Xmas so it is about time I finished this input of mine which I hope you all have enjoyed.
All I can say in conclusion is — Get up and GO, DO something, you will all feel better in the latter stages of life I can assure you.
This has only just scratched the surface, but the rewards of other’s happiness is well worth while.
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