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15 October 2014
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Life in Hemel Hempstead during the War

by hemlibrary

Contributed by 
hemlibrary
People in story: 
Childhood memories of Stewart Dunsford
Location of story: 
Hemel Hempstead
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3117692
Contributed on: 
11 October 2004

This story was submitted to the Peoples War website by Herfordshire Libraries working in partnership with the Dacorum Heritage Trust on behalf of the author, Mr Stewart Dunsford. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

Aged 11, I was standing in St Pauls Church on the day that war was declared. A lady came down the aisle to tell the vicar, who quickly passed on the solemn news to his congregation. He then immediately called the service to a halt and advised us to go straight home. It didn’t help that the air raid sirens started up almost straight away – at that stage we didn’t really know what to expect.

Having said that, the rest of my childhood proceeded happily enough and the very next day I started at Hemel Hempstead Grammar School, where I stayed until the war ended in the summer of 1945. One of the first things I remember is the erection of tall wooden posts at the front of the school playing fields, supposedly to stop German gliders landing on the spare ground – although this practice was soon discontinued. Children from St Ignatius School in the East End of London shared our school during the Blitz. Local children used the classrooms in the morning and the evacuees had their turn in the afternoon. Outside of school hours, these children were housed in wooden huts at Pixies Hill.

New evacuees were arriving in the town every day. One evening there was a knock at the door and we were presented with two children from Durlston to look after. There was no pre arrangement or agreement, it was just what was expected, every family was expected to do their best to help. For myself and my brother Brian, this now meant sharing with two other boys – four children sleeping top to toe in the same bed!

One day, during the dinner break, I can remember a German bomber flew very low over the school playing fields, firing its guns into the air to scare us. We all ran across the grass, screaming and one boy fell to the ground pretending he had been shot, which gave one of the lady teachers a real fright – although he was soon up again, laughing as he ran away…

The distinctive and terrifying noise of doodlebugs flying overhead could often be heard and one day we got a fright when the engine of one of these flying bombs cut out directly above us. However, thankfully, it didn’t drop straight down but instead glided on for some considerable distance before, we believe, crashing in a field in Dagnell, where it killed a few farm animals instead. I can remember a bomb dropping on Astley Hill, near the Cemetery, killing one person and also the much bigger explosion in Belswains Lane, which caused much more damage and several fatalities. Believe it or not, if you stood outside my house and looked out towards the top of Adeyfield Hill, you could see the fires from the Blitz in London glowing in the evening sky.

Perhaps our luckiest escape was one night when we heard the ominous sound of an aeroplane engine directly over our house. Initially, the eldest of our evacuees confidently declared that we had nothing to worry about as: “it was one of ours” – apparently he could tell from the engine noise. However we quickly realised how wrong he was, as the next thing we heard was the whistling noise of a bomb dropping. We all dived for cover, as the windows and walls shook, but thankfully our house survived unscathed. If that bomb had been dropped only a few seconds earlier, then perhaps I wouldn’t be here today, telling this story…

The next morning we children ran excitedly out across Queens Street and up the embankment to discover that the railway tracks of the local Nicky Line had been blown to smithereens.
Between us we managed to rescue one of the giant wooden sleepers, roll it down the embankment and get it home where father spent many hours sawing it up for firewood. Its dense and tarred wood certainly helped keep us warm all through that winter.

Dad worked a 72 hour shift ( alternate days and nights) at Dickinsons making ‘window’ strips which were dropped ahead of our own air raid sorties to confuse enemy radar systems. The money he earned helped to provide for his family during the war. There was always some food on the table and even school dinners if you wanted them. However there were shortages and food was rationed which meant key items like butter, sugar and meat had to be used sparingly. Clothes and shoes were also in short supply and had to be bought with coupons. I can remember wearing a cardboard insert in a pair of well- worn school shoes, but it didn’t do me any harm! My own childhood contribution to the war effort was to go scouring around for rubbish down near the railway lines, looking for any old metal that could be used for making aeroplane parts etc. Anything found could be left at the junction of St Pauls Road and Queens Street, from where it was regularly collected.

The arrival of the Americans who were stationed at Bovingdon airbase bought added interest to the town. One day I can remember seeing a big US jeep carrying military police or ‘snowdrops’, as they were then known, parking up in the old High Street and behind them an armoured Dodge truck carrying more American troops. Soldiers carrying tommy guns in Hemel Hempstead – that was an exciting sight for a schoolboy in those days. It turned out they were collecting cash from the bank to pay the men back at the base.

One of the most spectacular sights of the War I can remember is the sky being full of gliders carrying troops over to Arnhem. I suppose I was young and innocent then, but it never really crossed my mind that many of those brave men would never be returning. Nor did I ever consider, at any time, not even for a minute that we would lose the war. The only real moment of dread that I felt was when the Atom Bomb was first dropped – we all thought then that the end of the world was not far away. Thankfully we were proved wrong and many of us lived on to see much happier times.

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This story has been placed in the following categories.

Air Raids and Other Bombing Category
Childhood and Evacuation Category
Rationing Category
Hertfordshire Category
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