- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Alan Holland-Avery
- Location of story:
- Denmead, Near Portsmouth, Hants.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 June 2004
I was born in Portsmouth in 1938 and brought up on the Hambledon Road, Denmead (the B2150) in a big house which my father had rented in better times before the war. My first living memory at the age of about two and a half, was of loosing all our windows and part of our roof in the aftermath of an air raid on Portsmouth seven miles to the south of us. German bombers came in over the sea on a bombing run over the city, but then had to negotiate Portsdown Hill at the northern limit of the city and at the southern edge of the South Downs. Thus it was before they turned to go home that the German bombers dropped all unused munitions over the countryside as if shaking some giant pepper pot. My house was missed by about fifty feet by a large bomb and an enormous mine on a green parachute landed near the bottom of the garden. Both craters were fenced off until the end of the war. The windows of our house had chicken wire in the window frames until proper glass could be provided. I can still remember seeing the blue sky through the shattered roof from the bottom of our stairs, which were themselves covered with broken glass. This was not long after my mother had insisted that we all slept downstairs, but even then I had some wooden panelling fall on my feet with the blast!
Fortunately my father sold his car at the onset of war for a piece of shrapnel from the landmine went clear through the now empty garage and would have caused even more damage if there had been a car inside during the air-raid. We unravelled the green and white silk from what was left of the parachute and used it as string for we could not obtain the real thing in those days.
WW2 was normal life for me as a young child. I did not know anything else. We were not deprived by the standards of the time. We had little but made it go a long way. One egg and two ounces of chocolate each per week, that sort of thing. I can remember my big sister taking a cabbage from a field once when we were hungry, but generally people were very honest and shared the little they had. It was the pre-television era when the radio was king and many families would make their own entertainment in Sunday School and in the village hall.
My father was in the army and his job was a driving instructor so he was permanently stationed in Britain throughout the war, although he did not come home on leave very often. I can still remember his army number, it was 10666425. I remember he was stationed at Bister (slang for Bicester in Oxfordshire) some of the time.
I think it was the Home Guard who made the bombs and mines safe when they were called on which was important for the parachutes of some mines got caught in trees and the mines did not explode. When the Home Guard came and shot the mines down we had to go indoors or better still go into our own air-raid shelter. A mine would blow many trees away and leave a whopping hole in the woods which took years for new trees to fill.
There was great excitement when we got a searchlight in the corner of a field only two hundred yards away. Village children would visit the searchlight and the soldiers sometimes made them welcome. It was in an army tent next to the searchlight that I first saw things made with a new material called plastic. Plastic was like bakelite but had the advantage that it didnÕt break if you dropped it.
There was little road traffic and the hourly Southdown buses were all painted grey, the same colour as the road. Some roads had metal poles at regular intervals and these had glass bowls on top. I was told that they were called street lights and that they would all light up when the war was over, but no-one could say when that day would be.
Most of the traffic was for the army; lorries big and small as well as Bren gun carriers and proper big tanks. Then followed even bigger American army lorries and Jeeps. Our little country road had been taken over by the Army and there were many soldiers about the place. I started at the local primary school in May 1943 when the roads were still comparatively quiet, yet in a few months the military were everywhere. It had become like a modern rush-hour, but all the time! No longer did we have to look out for the odd delivery van or tractor, now lorries and tanks came in convoys, endless miles of them. And when they stopped, which they frequently did, half of the road was blocked for miles. If they stopped for any length of time the soldiers would come out of their tanks and brew mugs of tea. My mother was very popular for she would make tea in metal buckets which she had boiled on the cooker. The soldiers would each supply a cube (like an OXO) which had tea, milk and sugar already mixed. You just stirred them into boiling water and your tea was ready to drink. The soldiers were always friendly and it was nice to talk to someone new.
So the early months of 1944 were an exciting time for a boy who was just six years old. Toys were few and far between but you do not miss what you have not experienced. We made our own toys with anything we could find. Naturally in the country a catapult was a popular self-made toy if only you could get the elastic. One soldier had some strong black rubber and he made me my very own catapult but it was too strong and I could not pull it back. So he gave me a demonstration and it was amazing.
I started to collect things that the soldiers left behind when their convoys drove away. I do not know whether the metal parts had fallen off the tanks or just been discarded. I started to collect the plates and pins which make up tank tracks as these were my most numerous scavengings and there were different sizes for different tanks. Soon my collection was maybe a foot high and stacked in neat piles according to their sizes. You could tell the older ones as they started to go rusty. One day a convoy of tanks stopped in front of our house as one of the tanks had veered off into the hedge. My brother and I watched from a safe distance as a chain was connected to another tank and the offending vehicle was towed back onto the road. Then all of the rest of the tanks drove off and left the broken one behind.
I bucked up courage and went over to the broken-down tank to see what was the matter. I looked up with admiration at this great big soldier, about twice my height, as he related that his tank had broken a track and he would have to wait until parts were brought from a depot. Then I told him about my collection of tank parts and took him back to the side of my house where I kept it. His face lit up when I told him that he could have whatever he liked. I remember he took three or four plates and three or four pins and we made our way down the road, back to his tank. Then followed the sort of engineering banging which you have to have on these occasions and the tank was repaired. The tank crew climbed back into their tank and started the engine. The driver explained that although the convoys usually travelled quite slowly, his tank could really go at 22mph when it had to and he could therefore catch up with the rest of his convoy.
I said good-bye to my soldier and he drove away at speed, but what I shall always remember is the rusty plate of the tank track going round and round as they drove away. Naturally I did not know what Operation Overlord was at the time, but I have since wondered if I sent that tank crew to their deaths. Or did they get back home safely?
There were many more meetings with soldiers. Some villagers claim to have met George Formby when he got out of a tank, but said that he was very shy. Also it was supposed to be good luck to shake hands with a GI as you would find a stick of American chewing gum in your hand. Although this did not happen to me I did have a piece of chewing gum thrown to me out of a passing truck. And when the soldiers camped in their bell tents we sometimes got invited in but I hurt myself on a sharp piece of metal. They all seemed like grown-up men but I suppose most of them were only about twenty years old.
Then one day hundreds and hundreds of men lined up in the big field next to our house. A smallish man in uniform came to see them and talk to them and we heard it was King George VI. The men then marched past him, which seemed very strange as they made no noise marching on the grass. Our house was isolated on a hill and one night before the convoys arrived we were flashed (photographed I suppose) by a low flying single aircraft, but no one ever found out why. What had never dawned on us until years after the war was over was that our house was just three miles north of Southwick House. Of course we all know now that during the run-up to Operation Overlord, Southwick House was probably the most important building in the country. Yes, we could keep secrets in times of war, when it really mattered.
Then one day all of the lorries drove away, and all of the tanks drove away, and it was strangely quiet once again in the countryside. It would be many years before a six-year-old country boy learned the truth about our wonderful soldiers, sailors and airmen. Perhaps the best tribute that can be paid is to tell our future generations, and create a world in which there will never again be the need for war of any kind!
During the latter part of the war there were hardly any men available to work on the farms, so school children joined in with women and older men during busy periods. These were planting and picking potatoes and other vegetables, in addition to the annual harvest. After the war, when the men came back to work on the land, people would ask about their war-time experiences. It was a surprise to no one that those who had seen the killing, especially in the Far East, did not want to talk about the subject at all.
Soon after the war was over my mother bought me new corduroy trousers and I was able to travel and meet her father for the very first time. His name was Henry Greenwood and he was another of the great unsung heroes of WW2. Although Grandpa Henry retired in 1939 as an MD in the food industry, he had offered the then Minister for Food, Lord Woolton, the crowning glory of his life.... The Ration Book!
© 8th June 2004, Alan Holland-Avery.
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