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15 October 2014
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Recollections of Colin Metcalfe, Part 2 1940 : Dunkirk, the LDV, cadets and airplane spotting

by Winchester Museum WW2 Exhibition

Contributed by 
Winchester Museum WW2 Exhibition
People in story: 
Colin Metcalfe. Jean Metcalfe
Location of story: 
Reigate, Surrey
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Sarah Cooper at the AGC Museum on behalf of Colin Metcalfe and has been added to the site with his permission. Colin Metcalfe fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

During Spring and early-Summer 1940 things got serious. First there was Dunkirk. Redhill, Reigate's twin-town, was an important railway junction. Here the E-W line from Kent (Tonbridge) to Reading (and access to GWR) met the N-S London-Brighton electrified line. Trains full of Dunkirk evacuees, British and Allied, passed through Redhill, and mainly on through Reigate at the rate of several per hour throughout the day. Feeding stations ("tea and wad") were set up at Redhill station, presumably by the WVS, where the Metcalfe women helped. My contribution was to stand by the level crossing at Reigate station. and cheer and wave as the trains came through - a small collection of badges and buttons resulted, though now long gone.

The adminstrative headquarters of the Southern Railway had evacuated to Dorking, principally in the imposing pile of Deepdene Hotel. Come Eden's appeal for the Local Defence Volunteers, my father and Uncle Tom both 'stepped forward'. The railway companies all formed their own LDV/Home Guard units. Theirs was the 25th Sussex battalion, badged as the Royal Sussex, with HQ somewhere down there, possibly Haywards Heath. My father eventually, as a major, commanded the company that covered the Dorking offices and the stations nearby. If effect it was an independant company; he loved it! Proper officer's cap, webbing equipment (not horrible Home Guard leather) and leather covered swagger cane. To cover his patch he was even allocated a car (immobilised at night with the rotor arm removed, of course). When they received a few Thompson sub-machine guns (real genuine Tommy Guns, but with a stick, not drum, magazine) he brought one home, where we stripped and re-assembled it on the dining room table (or was it the Morrison then?) - my mother was not best pleased! The SR set up a residential training camp for their Home Guards at Gomshall Station, with its adjoining sandpit for grenade and range practice. Uncle Tom did both Home Guard and fire watching, and they both had allotments to "Dig for Victory".

By June 1940 Jean had completed her secretarial training, and armed with her Pitman's diplomas joined the BBC as a shorthand typist. She was fortunate in being allocated to a production department where she made the most of her opportunities, her elocution lessons, beautiful voice and charming manner to become a noted broadcaster. Come the Blitz, my poor mother must have been very anxious about her daughter working shifts in London. Although Reigate received little in the way of air attack, for many months all six of us slept in Aunt Norrie's reinforced cellar. In December 1940 the sky towards London glowed bright red, visible from Reigate, during the great fire raid of 29th December (I only recall this happening on one previous occasion, when the Crystal Palace burned down in, I think, 1936; then the sky was yellow).

My entry to the Grammar School in September 1940 was delayed a couple of weeks because one wing had been shot up by a straffing Luftwaffe plane - from the damage done, presumably with 20mm canon shells. The adjoining cemetary was also hit and I suspect there are still memorials showing traces of gunshot. We were required to bring in "iron rations" which were stored in the school air raid shelters - covered trenches, like long Anderson shelters. From false patriotism German language was dropped from the curriculum for the duration. Membership of the Army Cadet Corps or the Air Training Corps was compulsory though with the theoretical option of 'horticulture'. The school had had an Officer Training Corps, and aspects of this continued. Thus while we were technically D Company of the 1st Cadet Battalion, The Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, in practice we were organised as a mini-battalion with 2 rifle companies and an HQ Company, with band and an ambulance section. Promotion prospects were thus greatly enhanced - we had, for instance, 3 cadet Comany Sergeant Majors.

A curiosity of the period was that aeroplane spotting became not just an absorbing interest for boys, it became competitive. I was an enthusiastic 'spotter', looking forward to my weekly 3d copy of Aeroplane Spotter - a comic sized production by Aeroplane magazine, full of 3-view silhouettes, aircraft history and facts to cram into the brain - I can still instantly recall that the wing-span of the Lancaster bomber was 102 feet. The school arranged a 'spotting' match (timed exposure of projected silhouettes or photos) against our old rivals, Purley County School. We won both legs, home and away. Not being very athletic, that was the last time I represented my school until 2nd XV rugby in the Lower Sixth. That the skill was well learned is illustrated by an incient 30 or more years later. One Sunday I was working in the garden when my son ran up and, pointing skywrads, asked "Whats that, Dad?" The instant, unhesitating (and correct) response was "A B17 Flying Fortress" though I had not seen one for a quarter of a century, and was unaware there was one flying in Britain.

Returning to 1940 and the danager of invasion, the plan was, apparently, that if the Germans made a succesful bridgehead, the next line of defence would be the North Downs. Reigate of course, lies below the North Downs, i.e. on the wrong side of that line. An anti-tank ditch was dug at the foot of the scarp, certainly between Reigate and Dorking. My mother's view was not very brave: she would have the kettle on for a brew-up for whichever troops arrived first!

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