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Wartime Activities 1939-1945 of Peter Ascott

by Link into Learning

Contributed by 
Link into Learning
People in story: 
Peter Ascott and family, Syd Roberts, Bill Venning
Location of story: 
Dorking/London/Cornwall
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A4076309
Contributed on: 
16 May 2005

Back garden of Dorking home c.1941 with Remington Rifle (American)

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Dominic Penny of Link into Learning on behalf of Peter Ascott and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s Terms and Conditions.

1939 Sept — Nov helped father settle into recently bought house in Dorking, having moved from Croydon. It was mainly converting garden wilderness.

Got job as an electrical apprentice, based at Leatherhead, Head Office, London. Worked locally at first then worked in London ’40-’41, during the ‘Blitz’ but only during the day, commuting sometimes with extreme difficulty from Dorking. Joined L.D.V., later the Home Guard — back to Leatherhead. Temporary wiring in old school where Chelsea Pensioners were evacuated to. They were pushed out, to make way for wounded troops, back from Dunkirk. This was the first time I had seen a dead body and there were plenty!

1941 winter, sent to work in M.G.’s car factory at Abingdon. Lodgings were impossible to obtain, so four of us slept in a wooden hut and had meals in their canteen. They were not making cars: - repairing Waltzing Matilda Tanks, making Albemarle Aeroplane noses. Covenanter tank turrets and lots of smaller parts. We put in 400 fluorescent lamps, high up in the factory roof.

1942, sent to work in underground hospital in grounds of Dover Castle (all very Hush, Hush) Ran the gauntlet of daily bombing and shelling. We were bombed out of two lots of ‘digs’. The mainly Canadian Dieppe raid took place while we were there our landlady told us on the Friday that something big was going to happen on the next Tuesday. If she knew, so did the Germans, consequently the hospital became a mortuary before it was properly finished.

October 12th 1942, sent to work at Davidstow aerodrome wiring the interior of buildings. I found my ‘niche’ climbing about like a monkey putting 21 lights in the hangars or T2 sheds. I had a little trouble here, with the authorities when I borrowed a dumper truck during the lunch hour, thinking to go the pub, which was too far away anyway. On my return I managed to overturn the thing. I righted it with the aid of some friendly civilians and a bulldozer. No harm done — But as it was an R.A.F. dumper, a warrant officer did not see the funny side of it and reported it to the C.O. who demanded of my foreman that I be instantly dismissed. They could not do that to me as I was an apprentice (and an asset, wiring hangars without the aid of scaffold). So the next day I was sent to an aerodrome in Devon at Smeatharpe, known as Upottery where I continued wiring huts and hangars. An interesting ‘racialist’ incident occurred there when we were supposed to wire an American officer’s living hut. Our foreman refused to do it as it was disgustingly filthy. They even had a tame monkey messing all over. We went away and started wiring one of the black airman’s huts. When the American C.O. was informed of the reason, he just sent a working party of blacks to clean the officer’s huts!!!

I moved on from there after having wired 2 hangars and went to St Eval (Cornwall), where I wired two more. Then on to Portreath for another one, D Day came when I was there — I only wondered the day before — why grown men and flying officers were wasting their time betting on how many flys they could shoot down with elastic bands and dried peas.

1944 My apprenticeship ran out. I was no longer reserved so I got a job maintaining Davidstow Aerodrome, until I was called up in January 1945. It was not of choice that I was selected to be a Bevin Boy (at the age of 21) Went to Creswell for one month’s training. Then to Ollerton (Notts) to work underground (1500 ft down). Great treat to be given a real orange on V.E. Day.

Voluntary and Incendiary Work

Even before I had volunteered for the L.D.V., Home Guard, my father, who worked in an insurance office, joined the A.F.S., the part time fire brigade. Where he helped the local station in their training etc. This was in Dorking, about 20 miles south of London.

He was very keen on it all. One of the regulars told me they used to see him doing all the work, while the others looked on. They did go out on local incidents, such as chimney fires etc.

I am rather ashamed to admit that my mate and I were out on Holmwood Common just south of Dorking, on a very hot and dry summer’s day. We were experimenting, smoking cherrywood pipes when somehow or other, the grass was set alight and became uncontrollable by our feeble efforts of beating it with sticks. We did the obvious and made a bee line for home on our bikes.

As we were going into the house, the fire siren was going and Dad rushed past us, putting on his uniform. I never did tell him!

On the grimmer side of this, his team were sent to Portsmouth, during a Blitz raid. He was there for two days with little if any sleep. On his return he had to have a new uniform as his had been burnt beyond repair. Soon after this experience, which he never spoke about; his thumb was crushed, when someone slammed an ‘appliance’ door. He spoke quite a lot about that and the culprit.

About this time I asked if he could scrounge a tin helmet for me. I had never heard of anyone buying one. I told him that I wanted it, for when I cycled back from evening classes in Guildford, sometimes shrapnel and stuff came down around me. After giving me a severe lecture on the impropriety of stealing, he stopped me going to evening classes and paid for a correspondence course instead.

My sister had one. She was a fire watcher and at the age of 15 stood on the roof of her convent in Dorking spotting for planes and incendiaries. Her helmet was made of compressed cardboard and was a funny shape. It had a crown and was painted light blue.

I got one in the end when I joined the L.D.V. Local Defence Volunteers, pre Home Guard.

Keep Mum

One day in 1942, whilst working on an underground hospital under Dover Castle, we had some unannounced visitors. They turned out to be the Prime Minister, then plain Mr Churchill and the American Ambassador Mr J. Kennedy senior. My mate Syd Roberts and I were busy installing an electric fan motor in a ventilating duct.

We were all very conscious of security and the need to “Be like Dad keep Mum” and other exhortations with which we were constantly badgered.

So when Mr C and his entourage stopped, he asked of Syd “What is this you are doing here?” showing a bit of interest Syd replied “I don’t know — I only work here!” Churchill was tickled pink and said “I shouldn’t have asked should I?” Syd, trying to keep a straight face replied “No Sir” and the party moved on to more momentous activities.

Per Ardua ad Aerodrome

Early in 1944 I had been working at Davidstow Aerodrome, having excellent lodgings in nearby Tintagel with my future Grandmother in law the widowed Mrs Ada Fry. When I was told to go and work on 2 hangars at St Eval I was reluctant to leave, especially as it would be very difficult to find lodgings there.

I devised a scheme to get there daily. A workmen’s bus going through Wadebridge, 12 miles from St Eval, went on to St Mawgan. It left Tintagel 6.45 am and returned about 6.30 pm. So I arranged for my mate who conveniently lodged in Egloshayle Road, Wadebridge to keep my bike there. He would bring his and my bike to meet the bus on the bridge and we went on the spectacular route to St Eval via St Issey and Little Petherick, where there is a hump backed bridge at the bottom of two steep hills. They say there are 26 signs there now, nor is the bridge such a hump. It was possible to get airborne if you had nerve enough not to apply your brakes. We had the nerve then, being teenagers. It was 12 hour days and hard work, but we had fun at times.

In one hangar was a Liberator ex R.A.F. Coastal Command, now damaged and scrapped. Some USA Americans came in wanting bits of it for spares. They thought we owned it and offered to pay. I told them if they gave us ‘corfee’ everyday that would do. They did and brought a ‘dixie’, a large oval saucepan with enough for about 10 men. That helped to foster Anglo USA relations. Incidentally they thought we were quite mad to cycle all that way. They piled into jeeps even to go to lunch.

Besides USA American Navy, there were Canadian Engineers making runways and roads some spoke French and some were ‘Red Indians’.

Interrupted Service

Bill Venning a retired carpenter, now running a fishing shop in Tintagel, remembers the plane crash on Buttern Hill. It was Zoar Chapel anniversary Sunday, at Cold Northcott, on the A395 (21/05/44) not far from Wilsey Down hotel. The Chapel was full and he was ‘on the platform’ — a sort of stage — temporarily erected for the occasion, in front of the pulpit, for school choir recitations etc. They were used to hearing planes landing at Davidstow Coastal Command Aerodrome. This one was different. It was very low and making a different noise. It was so close; they imagined that it nearly touched the roof. The Chapel service continued as they heard it come down on the top of the Hill about 3½ miles away about the same distance from the runways at the Aerodrome.

The next day after school he and his pal persuaded his mother at their farm, where he lived, a few yards from Cold Northcott, to lend, begrudgingly, her bicycle. They both rode on this with other boys on bicycles to Bowithick. They walked from there to the top of the hill. The wreckage was all on the actual top. Fortunately the crew of seven had ‘baled out’. It was a Halifax bomber and was not from Davidstow. Their little group carried off bits and pieces for souvenirs. He remembers one wheel still being able to spin upside down. He wished he had saved the souvenirs because he subsequently joined the R.A.F. for his national service and had an affinity with them.

Excerpt from David Keast’s ‘Memories and Records of R.A.F. Davidstow Moor’ given with full permission.

21st May 1944 - This was a Sunday, a beautiful spring day. A Halifax bomber was circling around the area with a serious engine fire. It is not known whether the pilot was in contact with control at RAFDM or not. After a time a crew member was seen to bale out of the burning aircraft after it was set on course for open moorland. This crew member, (pilot) 22 years old P/O Jack Flemming RAAF landed in a field on Newpark Farm (near the airfield) The farmer and his wife were the first on the scene to find the pilot had sustained a terrible head wound. It was thought that on landing he had been injured by a large stone protruding from the hedge. The farmers wife had been straining milk at the time and in her panic found she was still holding the milk straining cloth in her hand. She folded it and used it as a compress on the wound. Eventually an RAF medical crew arrived from RAFDM, gave P/O Flemming morphine and took him away by RAF ambulance to RAFDM sick quarters (Trewassa) where he sadly died of his wounds.

About three days later, a local boy was walking through the fields and found a leather flying helmet with a gash in it that corresponded with the pilot’s head wound. The helmet was found two fields away from where the pilot landed. This almost certainly proves that P/O Flemming sustained his injury somehow as he left the burning aircraft. The other crew members baled out in the Callington area and all landed safely. The aircraft crashed into Buttern Hill at 2.20 pm narrowly missing the village of Bowithick. Because the site of the crash was so inaccessible a local farmer with a Standard Fordson Tractor and trailer, was employed by the air ministry to bring all the remains of the Halifax bomber back to Old Park Farm, where it was collected by RAFDM aircraft transporter. I have recently discovered that the Halifax was from Blyton, Lincolnshire 1662 Heavy Conversion Unit on a heavy bomber training exercise.

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