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15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

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From Farmhand to Making Spitfires

by SooKernow

Contributed by 
SooKernow
People in story: 
George and Olive (Dick) Phillips
Location of story: 
Southampton and Truro
Article ID: 
A1953056
Contributed on: 
02 November 2003

My Dad, Frederick George Phillips, moved from Cornwall to Southampton in approx 1937 to work at the Vickers Supermarine aircraft factory at Woolston. He had left school at 13 and was a farm labourer with no formal training but got the job with Vickers by convincing the interviewers that he had the skills and experience to be an aircraft fitter. He taught himself the ‘tools of the trade’ with ‘help’ from his fellow workers e.g. he would go into the stores looking for parts and ask others where these parts were located (he didn’t actually know what he was looking for) — they would point to the parts and when they had left the store, Dad would put his own mark on the rack so that he would know where to find them the next time. He was a very resourceful man and natural craftsman.

My Dad moved to Southampton as he and my Mum (Millicent Olive Truscott — nicknamed ‘Dick’) wanted to get married but knew that they would not be able to set up a home on the wages of a farm labourer. Mum was a cashier in a family run department store in Truro but in those days a wife did not work.

Mum and Dad got married on September 17th 1938 in Sholing Parish Church (probably St Mary’s) and set up home in Shirley.

At the outbreak of WW2, Dad was an experienced and well-respected aircraft fitter working on the Spitfire production line. He worked on the wings mostly fitting the guns. He did see R.J Mitchell on several occasions when Mr Mitchell visited the factory.

Dad did say that he etched his initials on the underside of one of the wings of every Spitfire he helped construct. When we went to an exhibition of aircraft many years ago there was a reconditioned Spitfire on display and to Dad’s and our delight he found his initials where he had scratch then some 50 years before!

During the Battle of Britain Mum did not see Dad for days — the fitters simply stayed working at the factory and when they were tired they slept on a bench and then, when rested, went back onto the production line again — they did not go home throughout the duration of the battle. I have never heard any public mention of this dedication and contribution to the Battle of Britain — a serious omission in history I think.
Dad also said that they were told just to construct the aircraft to fly for a max of 10 minutes e.g. they only put in every other rivet!

As everyone knows Southampton was a prime bombing target — not only because it was an important port but also because of the Spitfire factory.
Apparently there were two air-raid sirens in the area around the Spitfire factory — the first for the civilians and the second for the factory. The factory was always a prime target for the bombers but it was only towards the end of the war that the factory was destroyed and Dad and Mum (together with my young brother) moved to the new site near Romsey?.
There is a story about one of the air-raids on the factory that may or may or may be true. Apparently my Dad was the male first aider for the factory and he and the female first aider (Lil Macey?) had to check that the factory floor, toilets etc were evacuated before they headed for the shelter — so they were the last ‘men’ out.
On one occasion when they came out of the factory the bombs were already falling and the shelter door had been closed so they ran to a nearby railway bridge and sheltered under the arch. When the ‘all clear’ was sounded Dad and Lil came out from under the bridge to find that the factory was not hit but there had been a direct hit on the shelter and everyone inside was killed leaving Dad and Lil the only survivors from their shift. As I said, I do not know if there is any truth in this story but very often such disasters were not made public.

My Mum also had some stories as a young wife and mother.

Dad and Mum had a small dog ,a terrier called Paddy Watt. Mum used to take Paddy for a walk to meet Dad walking home from work. As there was a black out they could easily miss each other in the dark but if Dad did walk pass, even on the other side of the road, Paddy would stop and sit and would not budge. Of course Mum then used to speak to Paddy and Dad would hear her voice —clever dog!

Mum also remembers walking in the park near their home and seeing all the exhausted solders lying on the grass having been rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk. She also said that the soldiers were machine-gunned by enemy fighters as they lay sleeping!

Then there are the stories of how Mum coped with caring for a young baby - my brother - who was born in 1941 …..
How she had to crawl under an iron table (their first air-raid shelter) and put her young baby in a box gas mask and pump air into him.
How she was walking to her sisters house with my brother in his pram and the siren sounding and how she thought that she would be able to make it to her sister’s before any bombs dropped. Then a warden running towards her and grabbing by brother out of the pram and pushing her and him into a hedge and a bomb dropping into a house on the opposite side of the street. When the dust settled, she thought she was covered in blood —but it was red brick dust. The house that had been hit was totally destroyed, as was my brother’s pram. Mum and the warden could hear cries for help coming from the house and they cleared some rubble and found an old man and his wife perfectly OK under an up-turned sofa.
Mum made frequent train journeys home to Cornwall to see her family. These journeys were interesting to say the least. If there was an air raid (especially around Plymouth) the train would pull into a siding and all the lights were put out and the passengers were told to get under the seats. Mum used to push my brother into the small and grubby space under a seat and lay over him to protect him from any shrapnel. Apparently my brother did not mind, he thought it was great fun!
She beast feed my brother for over two years so that he could always be fed even if there was a shortage of food.

When the bombing increased Mum moved into her sister’s house. Mum’s furniture was put on the first floor and her sister’s on the ground floor. The house did suffer bomb damage but Mum did not get any compensation as the house was in her sister’s name. We had the same dented and scrapped furniture in our home in Cornwall for years and I loved it.
Towards the end of the war Mum and Dad had a ‘Pre-Fab’ in Salisbury — 227 Essex Square, Salisbury and Wilts — the ‘and’ is from my brother who like all children living in the war years, were taught their address in case they got parted from their parents. My brother was only 2 at this time but he could recite his address but very often forgot ‘Wilts’!
My Mum tells of the time of the start of the D Day landings when in the early hours of the morning she heard the drone of aircraft and awoke my small brother to hold him up to the window to watch the sky which was full of aeroplanes many of them towing gliders — unfortunately my brother does not remember this memorable sight.

My Dad used to read a book to my brother which he (and eventually me too) knew off by heart — ‘Number 1 in rabbit row, a crowd of bunnies lived you know, the youngest one was Bobtail Bunny — he was so jolly and so funny … (I would love to have a copy of this book but cannot find one)
Of course there were very few toys available (even if you had the coupons and money to buy them) but Dad, being a natural craftsman, made my brother wooden ‘peddle-cars’ which were parked in their special place in the home every night before bed time — wow betide anyone who moved them!

When the doodle-bugs started to be used, my Mum moved back to Cornwall to protect my brother. My Dad only joined them when the war ended.

The only bombs to be dropped on my home town of Truro fell directly onto the hospital despite the building being marked with a large red cross. The excuse was that as there was a tall smoke stack at the side of the building, they thought it was a factory — the chimney was for the incinerator.
The bombers’ target was probably Falmouth — a badly damaged town due to the docks. Our fighters were chasing the bombers out of the area so they had to get rid of their bombs and dropped them on an easy target and got rid of the rest on the hillside at Penmount on the edge Idless, the village in which I was born at the end of 1946. I remember running down into the craters when I went for a walk over the hillside when I was little. There were many patients killed at the hospital (mostly soldiers) and at least 2 members of staff — a sister and a young nurse, Rachel — my aunt’s best friend. My aunt was also a young nurse during WW2

There are many other stories of the war I could recount but these are the most significant. They have been related to me and my brother and sister many times over the years and have made me realise what incredible courage and resilience the ordinary people of this country had during these horrific war years.
I am in awe of my parents and family and other members of their generation. They sacrificed so much, many giving their lives and all we do is buy a poppy. The words used as this time of the year are ‘less we forget’ — no I will not forget and we must continue telling our children such stories of the courage of the ordinary people and reminding ourselves that if they did not endure such times as those of WW2 we would not be able to live in a free country.
Thanks Mum and Dad — what incredible people you were and still are — Dad died in 1994 but Mum is still with us aged 92.

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