17 The RAF

You went to war for 6 hours and you came back to clean sheets and ham and eggs

Waaf   I was posted to Regent’s Park.  It was ACR – Air Crew Receiving Centre, like for night vision, and so on.  Bentinck Close was our digs.  They said to me “What do you want to do?”  I said “I don’t know what I want to do.”  First of all I was put down as ACHGD – that’s anything. (1)   Like cleaning anything out.  Then this officer, she said “There’s a job here – you can either work in the cookhouse or you can work in the sick quarters!”  I thought to myself: I don’t fancy the cookhouse.  So I said “I’ll work in the sick quarters”, even though the sight of blood made me faint.

I was in sick quarters a couple of days and I see a Waaf who I knew – Flo Ward.  I knew Flo from before the war, because Mr Newton, who had a furniture shop in the Barking Road, used to be a tally man.  Our Mum used to get our clothes off him.  Flo used to measure me for my coats when I was little.  She was his buyer.  She was very brainy.  She was a typist and she bashed into me.  “Hallo Rene” she says.  “Oh Flo” I said “I’m working in sick quarters.  It ain’t half hard, cleaning all that place up.  I can’t stand it.”  Our sick quarters used to be Barbara Hutton’s house, the Woolworth’s heiress.  “‘Ere, look Reen,” she said “I’ll put you wise.  I’m doing typing and I know they want postal clerks.  Go in for that.”  “What can I do?” I said.   “Look” she said, “don’t put no make-up on – wash your face – and put on a sorrowful look and go and see the Waaf officer” – (‘cos I look sorrowful when I got no make-up on, sallow like).   I make an appointment don’t I?  I sees this Waaf officer. Left, right, left, right, left right.

“Yes, Airwoman, what do you want?”  “I’m working in sick quarters Ma’am, and it’s making me feel ill.  I can’t stand it.”  “Yes, you do look rather ill” she said, looking at me.  “Is there a trade you want to go in for?”  I thought:  I’m alright here.  “I would like to be a postal clerk” I said.  She phones up and I had to report down the Post Office at Holme House.  Down I goes there and I gets in with Kit, my old mate, and that’s how I started doing the post-office work.  I did it all through the airforce.

At Regent’s Park I used to come home every weekend on a 48 hour pass.  I used to bring all the Waafs home, didn’t I?  My mate and me were sort of ringleaders.  The girls used to say “Can we come with you and Kit, Reen?”  We used to stop coaches and get rides in them and bunk in everywhere – up Tottenham Court Road, all over.  We used to have a really good time.  She was a good mate to me, Kit was.  Honestly, I think people were more friendly then, than they are now.

The Corporal stands ’em all to attention.  “Waaf” he says, “Come Over here”

Our Roy, my Mum’s sister’s boy, he was a navigator in the RAF.  He was at Regent’s Park, and I was looking for him.  Me, I was permanent staff, but he was only there for aptitude tests.  I was looking out for him and all of a sudden I seen him marching along by Viceroy Court.  I said to my mate Kit “‘Ere, look – that’s our Roy over there!”  I shouted out “Roy! Roy!”  Course, as I’m shouting out all the Flight turns round, don’t they.  The Corporal stands ’em to attention.  “Waaf” he says “Come over here.”  I goes over and he dresses me down in front of the lot of them.  I didn’t half feel a fool.  “Don’t take the attention of my airmen.  You should know better, airwoman.”  Our Roy stood there and went all red.

rene raf_edited-1

From Regent’s Park I went down to Torquay.  I was stationed with the Canadians there.  I was two years down Torquay.  We were in the Grand Hotel, and being in the post office I used to collect all the mail.  I used to go from Paignton and Babbacombe.  We used to ride all the way around, with the Waaf drivers, picking the mail up.

The Canadian girls were very, very nice girls.  They were great big wenches and ‘cos of me being little they used to say “Come on, Kid, we’ll take you out for a drink” ‘cos they had a lot more money than we did.  I used to say to my mate “‘Ere, leave the window open, I’m going out with so and so tonight.”

Do you know who our Waaf officer was?  Know Attlee?  His daughter

I got away with murder myself. as far as discipline goes.  I used to come home in civvies. I used to have silk stockings on.  I was on a couple of charges, but I used to get out of it, me and my mate.  Do you know who our Waaf officer was?  Know Attlee? (2)   His daughter.  We used to have Domestic Night – one night a week you had to stop in and darn all your things, and all that, and then you had to have a kit inspection.

I was a rare one for walking about in me drawers – I never used to wear me trousers.  My mate and me, we used to pluck each others’ eyebrows and do our hair, and this Atlee, she used to say to me “Airwoman, every domestic night you’re always improperly dressed.”  I thought: you right cow.  Why shouldn’t I walk around in me drawers?   I enjoyed myself down in Torquay.  I signed on for another 6 months.  I done four and a half years in the RAF.

There was three strips there, and whether they like it or not, they had was to respect it, but occasionally you hear “Hallo Sambo” or another one he say “Eh, darkie” – “Snowball”.  All kinds of names

Airgunner, Sergeant  Before the war they might have seen the odd coloured people from the West Indies, but I don’t think they had seen them in such great number.   How can I put it?  There wasn’t – I don’t know if you could call it prejudice – we had a lot of questions thrown at us.  Different type of questions.  Some people say “Where’s your tail?”

In camp there was three stripe there, and whether they like it or not, they had was to respect it, but occasionally you hear “Hallo Sambo” or another one he say “Eh, darkie” – “Snowball.”  All kinds of names.  I was just that type of feller that I never take much notice of it.  I don’t care what a person wants to call me.  The only thing a person can do to me to make me retaliate is take me few coppers out of me pocket, otherwise I don’t care what he do.

There were a few in the camps who kept themselves distant.  You might have good friends in the camp – English friends – and when you go outside some of them act as if they don’t want to know you.  But then you have others, and you leave camp together and anywhere you go, they go.  They’re always there.   At the dances you get a little bit of jealousy, especially when you get to know most of the girls.  Some camps, like Henlow, used to have civilian dances. (3)    At Henlow I got to know plenty of Waaf, and around Henlow you’d meet other girls, visit their houses, and they expect me to go and dance with them.  You’re dancing and all of a sudden somebody tap you on the shoulder, and they say “Excuse me.”

This Yank just sweep the bar, swept off all the drinks, about six drinks off the bar.  He said “Niggers are not allowed in here”

With the girls, that was very sensitive with the Americans and the English lad.  It was very, very sensitive.  When I was at Henlow we used to go to Luton a lot, and the Americans had three bases around Luton.  You go the dance hall there and 90% of the people there would be American and they seemed to have all the girls that was going, while the others just stand as wall flowers.  Just looking.  So there was a lot of resentment with the Americans.  I can remember having a few arguments down at Luton.

There were two very big Americans – white lads – that I knew well.  They were stationed just outside Luton and we always meet when we go to Luton.  They had extra rations – double what we had – cigarettes – everything was double, even treble sometime.  I used to go back to the PX with them, and we used to go to dances together, we used to drink together – everything together.  We went to a pub one night.  The regular pub we used to go into.  We walk in and go to our table.  We had another Jamaican lad with me, but he was a much smaller lad, so he wants to show that he’s as big as anybody else.  He’s first to order the drink.  In comes three tremendously big Yanks, big white Yanks.  They walk up to the bar, just as this feller is about to pick up his drink and walk back to the table.

The Yank just sweep the bar, swept off all the drinks, about six drinks, off the bar.  He said “Niggers are not allowed in here.”  He didn’t say anything.  He re-ordered the drinks.  They done the same thing again.  The bartender – I think he was scared – he didn’t want to get involved.  Well myself and the other Yanks and two girls was sitting at the table, and one of the white Yanks at the table, he’s shouting “Re-order the drinks again.”

He re-ordered and the bartender serve him the drinks.  The Yank gets up from the table, walks over and stands behind the Jamaican lad.  The other Yank means to do the same thing again, but this other Yank catches his hand and stopped him.  He said “What do you want to do that for?  His money is as good as yours.”  He said “Niggers are not allowed here.”  “What part of the State are you from?”  He said “Texas.”  “How long have you been here?”  “Oh,” he said “we’re just coming in.”   “Well,” he said ” have you ever had to chase a bullet up your backside?”  These Yanks at our table had just come back from the Front.  They just get their leave, and these others are coming straight from America.  “If you want to see my wound, it’s here.”  He said “I didn’t know it was your friends.”  “Yes, they are my friends, and you’ll pay for the drinks you’ve tipped over.”  They bought their drinks and came over to our table and we was the best of friends after that.

These Yanks and we was like a pea in a pod.  Once we leave camp we never go anywhere without them.  For we had to get the bus from Henlow to Luton, or we go down to Hitchen and get the train.  But these Yanks, they used to come down with their jeep and pick us up, and take us down there.  I was there six months and I can’t remember ever spending a pound.  It was the most money I ever had since I joined the airforce, for I didn’t spend a penny.  They were doing all the paying.

The only regret I ever had was that I never had the opportunity of being in an operation

I was an air gunner but all the time I was on stand-by.  I’ve seen it all – I’ve seen the planes take off, I’ve seen it come back, I’ve seen the dead come back, I’ve seen the wounded come back, I’ve seen the plane come back shot up, come back on one engine, come back on half a wing, and I’ve never gone.  It might sound funny, but that’s the one regret I have.  I never went on an operation.

Between Henlow and Lincoln there was two Bomber Command stations, which was about three miles apart.  I’ve seen three – four hundred Lancasters take off each night.  You haven’t got time to fall asleep, from 3 o’ clock every morning until half past two or three next day.  It’s a mass of noise from taking off.  Then you have an hour in between, where you get a little lull – they disappearing.  But as soon as they disappearing you have another loud noise.  When you look up at the sky it’s full of plane from another base, heading in the same direction.  I’ve seen forty, fifty, sixty of them come back, shot up, twenty-five missing, and you have to run down as they’re coming in, pulling dead bodies out and helping the wounded to get out, and sometime, as soon as they’re landing they’re exploding.  When I used to talk about my not flying they used to say “What you’re doing is just as important as what they’re doing up there.”  But I said “I trained for up there, so why put me down here?”

The first time someone shot at us in anger – and they happened to be Americans – I got the fright of my life.  I was in the foetal position, making myself as small as I can

Bomb Aimer  After you’d finished your training they put you in a big room – fifty pilots, fifty navigator, fifty air bombers, a hundred air gunners, fifty engineers – and they let you mix for a couple of days.  Then they came in and said “Who’s the crews?” and they marked them all down.  I don’t know how the other crews picked themselves, but I know how we picked ourselves.  We were all Scotsmen, more or less.

MacNamara came up to me and said “I’ve got a feller from Aberdeen in the rear turret and a feller from Galashiels in the mid upper – do you fancy joining us?”  “Aye, alright.”  We couldn’t find a navigator who was Scottish so we picked a Geordie.  We got an Australian – Lowry – as a wireless operator and a Cockney as a flight engineer.  We didn’t get on too well with him, but if you don’t work together you’ve had it.  There’s no question about that.  There’s no-one there to see if you’re doing it right or doing it wrong.  You’ve just got to work together.

Being aircrew you all had to be reasonably intelligent, so that was different.  Everything was different in aircrew – the whole set-up.  You went to war for six hours and you came back to clean sheets and ham and eggs.  No one else did.  There was a Waaf who used to serve us our ham and eggs.  She was beautiful but no-one would touch her with a bargepole.  She’d been engaged to different guys.  Every time she got engaged to one, he died.  That was quite a thing in this modern day – the superstition of aircrew: never turning back, for instance.  You never turned back if you’d forgotten a map.  Anything.  Another one was, if someone had bought it and their clothes were lying around, you grabbed them – their trousers, their jackets – anything – on the theory that it wouldn’t happen to you.  Do you know what we had?  Most of  my crew were Catholic, and we used to have a priest come and give us the Last Rites.  I used to hate that.

I never dropped a bomb in my life

We were a protection society for the rest of the main force – try to kid the Germans on the main force wasn’t coming their way.  It was a hell of a job.  Airborne Cigar was one of them.  There was only one squadron of you, so it’s hard for them to find you.  You would go up and switch your navigation lights on.  You used silver paper all the time.  The idea was it would show up on their radar and you would time it, say when you’ve left the coast.  The silver paper was in long sheets, about eight foot I suppose, but it was folded and you ripped it and pushed it down a chute.  It opened up, as it got out of the aircraft.  Each silver strip would look like an aircraft in their radar.  Everybody, say at 10 o’ clock, would for four minutes throw out silver paper at the rate of one a minute, and as you got nearer the coast you kept throwing out more and more and more.  This would attract their fighters.  Once their fighters were up in the air looking at happy valley – that’s Nuremburg and all the other places – the main force would go for Berlin, and they couldn’t divert these aircraft up to Berlin.  They hadn’t the fuel.  It was quite a good idea, but I don’t think it worked very well. But the worst trips we had, and they were absolutely horrible, was to go out and sit along the coast, and do nothing.

The only thing the crew hoped was that I wasn’t the second pilot when the pilot died

We were based way out at Wells-on-Sea – North Creake – near Fakenham in Norfolk.  We used to go up to 20,000 feet and circle for six hours round our own arse.  Round and round and round.  We had three wireless operators in the aircraft and they jammed the radar of the Germans, so you had a complete screen from Denmark to France.  The idea was that when the main force broke through the screen the Germans only had time from the coast to the target to get their fighters up.  Oh, but that was agony.

One night a Focke Wulf came up and saw us going round and round.  This was just off Denmark.  We’re watching this Focke Wulf looking at us, saying “Jesus Christ, we’ve had it now.”  A Focke Wulf had 20 mm canon with a range of about a mile and we’ve got these wee pee-shooter machine guns.  They shoot a lot of bullets, but they don’t go very far.  But he buggered off and let us all clean our pants up.  It’s frightful you know.

The first time someone shot at us – and they happened to be American – I got the fright of my life.  I was in the foetal position, making myself as small as I can.  I looked at my mate Eddie and said “For fuck’s sake, let’s no do this any more.  It’s alright for a joke, but let’s chuck it now.”

I would normally have been an air bomber, but in this group we had no bombs to drop, so I became second pilot, second air gunner, second everything.  I was running up and down the plane like a blue-arsed fly.  The only thing the crew hoped was that I wasn’t second pilot when the pilot died.  I used to fly it home and they’d say “For Christ’s sake, you’re making us seasick.”

Your chances run out.  Your courage runs out.   I went away for three months

They did a Catch 22 on my crew.  It had gone on too bloody long.  It was during my first tour.  They said to us “If you do another ten we’ll give you a long leave.”  And then it was “If you do another five trips we’ll give you an even longer leave” and it was going on and on and I said “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”  Your chances run out.  Your courage runs out. They said “You can go away.”   I went away for three month, up to the Highlands, and I never came back until D-day.

His Wife   Within a year of one another your Mother and Father died.  I hadn’t met you very long and I can remember you phoning from Ma Simpson’s, speaking to this Adjutant.  He wouldn’t believe that your Father had died.  You were shouting down the phone “But my Father’s dead!”

Bomb Aimer  It was the LMF thing.  (4)  I had a cold once and this doctor started looking at me.  I said “Look, I’ve got sinus and it’s bloody sore.”  You’re locked in this light pressure at 20,000 feet and you come into heavy pressure – it starts getting to your head.  But no.  They begin to look at you funny, and start to ask questions about how you feel about flying.  You can’t say “I feel fucking awful about it.”  No.  It’s “I feel alright.”

His Wife   I knew a guy who was recorded as Lack of Moral Fibre.  They shoved him up in an aeroplane.  Every time they put him in a plane he went into hysterics, and they wrote him off: “Lack of Moral Fibre”.  It was written across his brain.  Every time he talked to you it finally came up in conversation.

Bomb Aimer   One thing about the airforce, and I believe it was true of all the services, you were fighting some nebulous thing.  Few Britons were fighting a personal war…. You had to get the likes of the Poles and the Czechs, in Fighter Command, for instance, who knew what it was all about, what they were fighting for.  They never mention about the Poles and the Czechs in the Battle of Britain.  They were the ones who really got tore into it.  They knew what the war was about.  We didn’t.

I enjoyed my first flight.  I really did enjoy it

Flight Engineer  I passed out as a Flight Engineer on Stirlings and I got sent to Waterbeach. (5)     It was a 16/51 Heavy Conversion Unit, Waterbeach. They usher you into a room and in that room you find lots of other aircrew.  All these other aircrew are already a crew – mostly Wellington and Whitby crews – twin engined bombers, and they’re looking for an engineer.  You milled around and spoke to various crews – I don’t know how it happened – but you finished up with a crew.  They’d all flown before, though not necessarily in operations.  My crew had been flying together for some months on Wellingtons, although they hadn’t done any operational flying.  We were being converted to four engined bombers.

I was a right sproggy.  I hadn’t done any flying whatsoever.  I knew the theory but I’d never seen the inside of a Stirling.  So I get in it and there are two instructors.  One for the pilot and one for the engineer.  They’re called screen pilot and screen engineer.  They cover you in fact.  My instructors really looked old to me – he must have been all of thirty!  He said “My God, they must be robbing the bloody cradles!”  I was twenty.

I enjoyed my first flight.  I really did enjoy it.  My instructor taught me a hell of a lot.  He was a real stickler.  He insisted I wore all my gloves – which was three pairs: silk, wool and leather.  He insisted I wore my goggles on my forehead, above my eyes.  All around his eyes he had a scar.  He’d fought a fire on a Stirling and he’d pulled his goggles down and that saved his eyes.  The chamois leather had burnt off the frame, and the frame metal had burnt into his face. He said “I may have a scar around my eyes, but I’ve still got my eyesight, and I’ve still got my fingers.”

Then we did what were called familiarisation – circuits and landings, or “circuits and bumps” in airforce jargon.  After not many hours – six in fact – we were fit enough to go out on our own.  They loaded you up with a heap of dummy bombs and they send you out on what they call a loaded climb.  We were then posted to Mildenhall, to a squadron.  The Flight Commander took Jack, the pilot, and I up – just the two of us, to see how we coped on Stirlings.  He passed us as being fit for flying on Ops.  We did some operational climbs, taking off and landings and then they suddenly decided that we were going to convert to Lancasters.  They sent us  after Christmas, 1943 to Feltwell –  No.3 Lanc. Finishing School at Thetford in Norfolk.  The conversion course was a matter of hours.

Compared to a Stirling, a Lancaster was a beautifully simple aircraft from an engineer’s point of view.  On a Stirling there were fourteen petrol tanks and you could have four in use at any time or six in use.  To change tanks you had great big levers you pulled and you pushed.  It was like being on a ship.  It was really grim.  The Lancaster in comparison was very simple, although all aircraft have got things wrong with them, and these were pointed out to us.  We were now ready to fly ops.

Lanc photo 4x6006

Nobody could explain to you what flying on an Op was like.  Nobody could really tell you what to expect.  Jack had done one trip, just before our first Op, called a “second dicky”.  He got taken up to be shown what it was like.  The rest of us hadn’t done any operational flying at all, so we didn’t know what to expect.  When we were ready to fly we had a lecture from a chappie who had escaped from a German prison.  He’d got back to this country, like many airmen.  We were escape orientated.  We all carried escape kits: compasses, and so on – not because the RAF were doing us a favour, but because we’d cost so much to train that we were supposed to try and get back.

The first trip we did was to Essen and I must admit, I was dead scared.  Every time I saw a great big bright light I shut my eyes.  If I’d only known, it was the easiest trip we ever had, or were ever likely to get.  It was a very, very cloudy night and all these bright lights I kept seeing were the reflections of bombs flashing back on the clouds, or searchlights playing under clouds.  It was nothing – but you don’t know what to expect.  I was supposed to keep a log every fifteen minutes – logging engine temperature of four engines, logging oil temperature, speed, boost – a heap of stuff.  Well, you don’t.  You’re dead scared.  You don’t want to know.  It was a big laugh when  I went back next morning and I said I’d lost my log book, because obviously they knew – first time out everybody lost their log!

The second trip we did was Nuremberg, which was the worst air battle of the lot – but we didn’t know that, did we?  We had nothing to compare it with

It was a running battle from the time we crossed the Channel.  We didn’t know, though, that this was unusual.  Other crews would, but this was only our second trip.  By the time we got to Nuremberg we were shattered.  You didn’t need a navigator.  You could navigate by the combats going on ahead of you and by the aircraft burning on the ground. We were shattered.  There’s no other word for it.  We hadn’t lost our morale – we were all doing our jobs – but we were scared.  Dead scared.  We had logged 32 aircraft going down until Jack said “Pack it up”.  I remember him swearing at a Lancaster which was going down in flames – he wanted it to blow up because the longer it kept in flames the easier it was for other people to see us.  And Jack was normally a very mild sort of man.  We buckled our parachutes on, which I never did again.

We took a vote because the rear turret wouldn’t work, whether we should turn back or not.  It was the skipper’s decision, but we always reckoned that as we were flying as a crew we should vote.  We all voted to go on.  Over the target two Junkers 88’s attacked us.  We were sitting ducks.  The wireless operator got down on his hands and knees and prayed to Christ.  He had the intercom on, and it came over the intercom.  Who knows?  It might have had some effect because they sheared off and shot down people either side of us.

Back we had a quite trip.  Sharma the navigator, who was a crack navigator, reckoned we were over Brest, which was a heavily defended area.  There was a hell of a lot of searchlights which made us think it was Brest.  We got quite a scare.  We were busy shoving out “Window”, the stuff that puts their radar off, and we had a gadget which messed their searchlights up.  It had no effect whatsoever.

We thought, any minute now they’re going to open up and blow us out of the sky

I’d let a tank run dry – which shows what state we were in panic wise, and I had trouble restarting the engine, and that engine ran the radar set.  Suddenly, the searchlights started crossing – to-ing and fro-ing – and it was Manston, Kent.  Not Brest at all.  I always remember feeling – I don’t know what the word was….  Besides anything else, we were also out of fuel.  The winds we had been told to expect were wrong and we had been flying against headwinds.

Manston was not only a fighter base but also an emergency landing space for bombers.  You could get several aircraft down at once in that place.  That was the whole idea of it.  As we were coming in to land there was a chappie coming in hard behind us and he was listing what was wrong with his aircraft.  Terrible things – he couldn’t get his wheels down; he had so much shot away from behind; he had so many crew members dead – I thought “Christ Almighty, what have we got to complain about?”  He was asking for the fire engines and all the usual appliances.

I never really knew what happened to him because the following morning we were able to fuel up again and take off.  The place was littered with bombers, all round.  When the news came on they said 70 aircraft were lost, which of course was wrong.  A lot more than 70 were lost.  (6)    When we got back to our airfield and looked down at the aircraft there was very few of them around.  We thought most of them had been wiped out, but like us they’d landed elsewhere.

We were really shattered.  We thought if this was going to be like this, we haven’t got a chance in hell

Nuremberg took us six hours forty-five minutes, from take-off to return.  Lots of people used to reckon the Germans knew we were coming.  It seems obvious, but I can’t really believe the allegations that they had been informed by our own Intelligence.  You wouldn’t have sent that many aircraft would you.  700 was a hell of a size force.  (7)    You’d have sent a smaller force.  They’ve slain this book that says the Nuremberg raid was leaked.  They say his facts are all up the creek. (8)   But we were really shattered. We thought if it was going to be like this, we haven’t got a chance in hell.  As it happens, we were one of the few crews in our squadron to complete a tour.

Nuremburg log book003_edited-1

Each aircraft had its own ground crew, and each ground crew had an NCO – a corporal – in charge.  Ours was Corporal Tich Yates.  There were so many aircraft to a wing, and over that wing there would be a Flight Sergeant, a chiefy, as we called him.  He would be in charge of all the ground crew.  We were out on dispersal – not altogether, but in a pancake, apron, call it what you will.  The ground crew used to dig holes in the ground and make all sorts of shelters.  They almost used to live out there, alongside the aircraft!  Our particular lot had lost so many crews, they hadn’t had any time to develop any feeling for the people they were servicing aircraft for.

We had a very old Lancaster.  It had already done Ops and been used for training when it came to us, but it was a fantastic aircraft – T for Tommy, LM443.  We survived one, two, three, four, five trips and they realised that the way things were going, they could well have a crew.  There was a fantastic feeling, fantastic comradeship growing up between us and them.  Aircrews and ground crews didn’t always get on so well together.  So much so that when we had an air test, the corporal or one of the chaps used to fly with us, because if they had done a rotten job and they knew they were going to have to fly in it, they’d make sure they did a good job.  So it was standard practice that one always had to come, but with our lot, they all wanted to come!  In fact we had an armourer who was boss-eyed.  He was dead keen to fly and Jack used to get out of the seat when we were airborne and this chappie used to fly.

In an aircrew you were like a family.  That was the whole idea

You’ve got to know how the other will react. On a trip there was very little said.  All this stiff upper lip touch is a bit overdone but there isn’t much said because if you do, someone could be saying something that’s absolutely trivial when something happens and somebody’s got to be able to hear what another person is saying.  So normally there’s nothing said.  The pilot goes through all the crew. Calls them up, makes sure they’re all there, all OK.  The only time anybody speaks is if you’re being attacked.  It’s usually the gunner who speaks.  I might break the silence to say I’m having trouble with a particular engine, or the wireless operator, who might receive a wind being broadcast.

We lived together as a crew, in the same billet, until Jack got his commission and moved out.  It didn’t make any difference for when we weren’t flying together we were eating together or drinking together in Cambridge.  Everything we did was together.  Jack was from British Columbia.  He was very quiet spoken, but Bob Brigham, our bomb aimer, was from Toronto and he was as different again.  All he did was gamble, gamble, gamble.  They used to have much better uniforms than we did.  Better tailored.  At that time airmen didn’t have battledress, only aircrew had battledress.  We had buttons on our battledress.  They had a zip.  Bob came home one night – early one morning – undid his zip and pound notes cascaded out.  He’d been playing craps.

You couldn’t pack it in and say “I don’t want to fly anymore, please” could you?

Before an Op there were rituals like peeing on the tail-wheel, and you’d joke such as “You haven’t got a chance in hell tonight with your lot”.  Or “You’ll find that bloody aircraft won’t see you back for breakfast.”   Or “You’re for the chop tonight.”  It was said all the time, even if someone was killed.  You just carried on.  If you didn’t joke there was dead quietness.  In the American airforce you could suffer from what was called “Combat Fatigue”.  In the airforce you suffered from “Lack of Moral Fibre”, which was stamped across your paybook, all your documents – LMF, and you’re stripped of your rank.  And this could lead to trouble because you might have a crew member who was going round the twist and in doing so was endangering the rest of the crew.

We all had our own personal mascots.  I had a little airman my wife gave me.  Jack, as he came from British Columbia, had an Indian totem pole.  There was only one crew member who used to leave a “last letter”.  For us to leave a last letter was considered bad luck.  It was asking for it.  You couldn’t pack it in and say “I don’t want to fly anymore, please”, could you?  We were dead scared but on our third trip I don’t think we thought “I wonder what’s going to happen to us?”  Our third trip was eleven days afterwards, to Laon in France.  That was a railway marshalling yard.

The only time when we were on Ops I can remember about people as such, as distinct from cities and industries, was when we were going to Essen.  Our Intelligence Officer was giving us all the old madam and then he said “You’ll be arriving when they’re changing shifts”.   That was about the only time I ever thought exactly what we were going to do.  We were not only going to bomb a factory and its plant, we were also going to bomb two lots of work people, and among those work people were probably Russians, French, apart from the Germans.  He actually mentioned people, instead of aiming points, which was usual.

In Frankfurt the Post Office was being use as the aiming point.  That was getting near Christmas.  A great joke – it’s bound to be full of goodies for the troops out in Russia.  It’s going to lower their morale.  People weren’t talked of.  It was aiming points and targets.  You didn’t think, did you?  It was orientated that way.  It was like aerial combat.  The first time I saw a German fighter in the moonlight I was fascinated.  I wasn’t scared at all.  You didn’t think of the man sitting there who was trying to get a bead on you.  You thought of the machine, not the man.

I.   Aircraft Hand – General Duties

2.  Clement Attlee,  Labour wartime deputy Prime Minister, and Prime Minister 1945 – 1951.

3.  Henlow, Bedfordshire.

4.  LMF: Lack of Moral Fibre

5.   Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire

6.   96 bombers, not 70, were shot down.

7.  The figure was almost 800, not 700.

8.  The Nuremberg Raid by Martin Middlebrook, Allen Lane. 

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16 The Royal Navy

I don’t want to sound rotten about this, but in my opinion, having mixed with all parts of the other services, I would say the comradeship is highest in the navy

London Dockers’ Son   Around about the time of the bombing in London, 1940 or so, or a little later, they were putting dockers into an organisation known as the Millionaires Navy,  which was a Reserve Navy that went on active service.  They wore the Royal Navy uniform but they got civilian pay, hence the name.  They also got called the Golden Navy, as well, and they were resented by the regular Navy.  They got jobs like moving ammunition at Portsmouth.  The rest of the shipping was diverted outside of London.  Practically the entire docks area was razed to the ground.   Where I lived the docks was alight for about four days.  It’s just as well they did divert shipping.  Dockers were drafted into this Millionaires Navy.

Chief Petty Officer  I was on most boats, including submarines, but oh jeez – I hated submarines.  Oh, when that bloody hatch was closed – Christ.  It’s deadly on a submarine.  Bloody deadly it is.  Though you don’t pay much attention to it, you’ve always this fear in your belly.  When was war broke out, was I bloody glad I got transferred!  I didn’t ask to get transferred, but was I glad.  I got down and kissed terra firm, when I got out.  I think everybody was the same.  In those days you didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of getting up.  That was it.  It was curtains.  They were so obsolete.  Christ, everything you touched fell to pieces, for lack of maintenance.  Everything had been let slide.  They hadn’t kept up with the modern idiom as regards anything – guns, weaponry – anything.  I’m not going to blame the Conservatives, even though they were in power at the time.  It would be wrong to blame any government.  It was the thing of the age.  They thought the 1914 – 1918 war was the war to end wars, like the last one was.

The Navy was extremely strict on discipline.  I think more strict than the other forces

But not with the brutality that you got in the army, although brutality came into to it on a lot of different ships.  Don’t forget, there’s no back doors in the navy.  You can’t run into the next field.  This is the difference between the navy and all the other forces.  You had to work together, your lives depended on it, so you had to be strict.

Normally the discipline was left to the PO, and you could get some wicked PO’s.  But in a way I suppose – and I came more or less up from the bottom – although I was subjected to  all this treatment, I think it did you a lot of good in some respects.  In some cases, when the war broke out the old-timers had got that bloody fed-up at getting new recruits who didn’t know the first thing about seamanship, that they had to be bullies to make sure you learned the right way.  But some PO’s I’ve seen knock AB’s down gang-plank with their fists. (1)

One of the worst, one of the noxious jankers jobs was you got put on painting.  Oh bloody hell!  You had to go round with a chipping hammer.  That and in the galley – mountains of rotten greasy stinking pans.  They were the worst.  You had to be a very bad, very bad lad if you got the brig, and if you got the brig for more than forty-eight hours you’ve done something exceedingly bad, and usually it was something to do with the safety of the ship.  You very rarely, on the ships I was on, got put in the brig for ordinary acts of foolishness, or pissing about.  It was for smoking in forbidden quarters, which is a great hazard aboard a ship.  It’s stupid but you got blokes doing it.  Or later on, when we were in action, and we was in the Atlantic, and we were searching for the big ones, I caught one bloke lighting a match – of all things – on deck.  A lit match, even a glow of a cigarette is visible for several miles at sea, and don’t forget, we was after the Graf Spee.  These were the things were discipline was cracked down on.  I myself was very, very strong about this.

I don’t want to sound rotten about this, but in my opinion, having mixed with all parts of the other services, I would say the comradeship is highest in the navy.   It’s because it is the navy that the comradeship is the highest.  It has to be.  You have to trust one another. You usually sorted the bad ones out and they usually asked for a transfer or got transferred.  The brotherhood was tightly knit.  Obviously at times tempers got frayed – boredom, etcetera.  Fights occurred, especially when you weren’t in action, but after a bit you was all the best of mates.   There was very few grudges carried.  I carried one against an officer  – I must admit this – because he was a homo.  It wasn’t being a homo that upset me so much but the fact he took advantage of very young ratings.  I made his life such bloody hell because I caught him red-handed.  I had an idea what was going on.  He got transferred in the end.

But you have to trust one another.  I mean, I’ve seen lads like in submarines, in the old days you had to close them by hand (now they’re sealed automatically) – all hatches are sealed in times of action.  If you’re in the part’s that flooded it’s just too bloody bad.  You drown, that’s all there is to it.  I’ve seen blokes go down hatches, like they did on the Ajax, and other boats where we’ve been in action, into hatches where the hatch had to be sealed after them, and they’ve known it’s ten to one against them coming out of the hatch alive, and yet they’ve done it without flinching.  I don’t think it’s bravery.  It wasn’t bravery – it was just that they knew it was their job to do this, and the ship, and the rest of the men depended on them obeying their orders.  I think a lot of them should have got V.C’s.  A lot of them never got mentioned – but it was this comradeship – you never hesitated, never mind how frightened you was, you never hesitated to obey the command.

There was no running to get into a bloody do that you had no chance of coming out of – let’s get that right straight away

I was always afraid and I think everybody would admit the truth – there wasn’t such a word as cowardice – you was just shit scared of being the next one to cop it.  The Ajax was the flagship of the flotilla.  It was supposed to be  an attack flotilla because of all the torpedo tubes we were fitted with.  But you’ve got to get bloody near to a boat to fire these things – too bloody near, I’ll tell you.  And when you think we were being hit at twelve miles before we was anywhere near in range, and it wasn’t shells they were firing, it was houses.  Don’t you believe that our navy had the edge on the German navy.  Don’t you believe it.  Oh jeez – we had nothing to compare with.  Even the very latest battleships – King George Fifth, Prince of Wales – they had 14″ guns, but their 14″ guns couldn’t compare with 15″ guns of the Tirpitz and the 11″ guns of the Graf Spee.  No, we had nothing.

1.  PO – Petty Officer;  AB – Able Seaman.

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15 Army Life

The King says to me  “How do you like the Army?”  I told him I didnae like it.

Fusilier   Before the invasion of Normandy the King – King George – came to inspect us.  My usual experience was that I ended up being the person who was spoken to.  This occasion wasnae any different.  The King says to me “How do you like the army?”  Without much hesitation I told him I didnae like it.  He said something like “Private something or another, there are lots of things you’ve got to do during the war.”  If looks could have killed me, everybody that passed me committed murder.

Scunthorpe Man  I didn’t take to army life at first.  From Scunthorpe we went to Newcastle and then we were posted to the Orkneys.  We were there because of Scapa Flow. (1)   We were a searchlight battery.  We mixed all right with the folk Newcastle way, but in Scotland…  There was a lot of nice people.  We went to a pub and they got us drunk on whisky.  I was bad for a week after that.  I’ve never touched it since.  But there was another element who didn’t like Englishmen at all.  You could tell.  The majority was alright.

We were in nissen huts on Orkney.  They had to have them strapped down because of the wind.  I was eighteen months on Orkney.  Too long.  We got off once.  I think it was for a fortnight.  We had no social life.  I have heard since that Gracie Fields and one or two big stars went to Orkney to entertain, but we never saw them!  At one time we all used to play Cowboys and Indians!  There was just nothing to do.  Some of them shot themselves. A sergeant shot himself.  The highlight was the free cigarette ration that used to come round every so often.  They used to arrange a film show at battery headquarters.  We used to go there.  Then we used to get what they called a Concentration Period.  A lorry would come round and pick you up and take you into headquarters for aircraft spotting.

I used to help folk cut peat and I used to go rabbiting.  I went in one of those houses they have in Orkney.  They’re just low, low shacks.  I went through the door and I was in the living room – and they started driving cows through another door!  They drove them to the other end of the building, under the same roof.  I’d rather have been in anywhere than Orkney.  I’d have rather been in France than Orkney, it was that desolate.  In winter it used to get light about 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, and it used to get dark again at four.   In the summertime it was never dark.

Whilst we were there these Airborne people came up one time because they were wanting volunteers.  Some of us went and some of us didn’t.  I think they did this on purpose.  They knew the morale of the troops would be low, and that’s how they used to pick them up, pick up volunteers for Airborne.

The only time I was in danger throughout the war was when we was on our honeymoon at Cleethorpes.  It was.  We went to an Aunt’s at Cleethorpes and they had an air raid the night we got there and they dropped a landmine at the top of the street.

There was only one time our detachment got an aircraft in the beam.  When you were doing practices you pretended as if there was an aircraft – “Aircraft spotted.  Right.  Left.  On target” and so on.  On this particular occasion they got an aircraft in the beam and the chap who was guiding the searchlight, he just stopped still.  We said “What’s the matter?  What are yer doing?  “Well” he said “nobody told me which way to go.”  So that was it.  We lost it!

Going into the army for me was physically a doddle

London Tailor  The kind of slavery the tailoring trade was, and probably still is, in small workshops, where the boss is constantly over you, where the speed of work is determined by piecework, where you push yourself because your wages depended on it – it certainly was a trade where if you finished a day’s work you knew you’d done a day’s work.  You could hardly move for fatigue.  Army life was a kind of life I had not previously experienced before, except during periods of unemployment.  It was a life of no effort, except for short spurts, like an hour on the barrack square, but the rest of the time was a great big scrounge.

What I revolted against in my first eighteen months was that I was so bored and I was constantly upset by the pettiness of authority.  I learnt all the scrounges possible – you never walk without a piece of paper or a pail in your hand because if you’re going nowhere, they’ll find you somewhere to go.  You can’t be walking nowhere in a barracks, that’s for sure.  “You!  Where are you going?”  And if you’re not going anywhere they find you some fatigue.  I had a lot of experience of jankers, which is another way of torturing people.  Apart from that, I was bored.

One night somebody let a round off, across his bows.  That put a stop to it

In all the units I was in, because they were not fighting units, the discipline was quite relaxed, so there was not too much discontent.  Except for one incident.  We were guarding an aerodrome in the Midlands, between Leicester and Derby.  We were a detachment of about forty or fifty men.  The majority of us were doing 24 hour guards, on and off.  It was a transport command.  One of the officers, a middle-aged bloke, was a hard case.  He felt very important and he was a bit regimental, which was not on.  On a detachment it never is.  That’s OK in a barracks where the Colonels are about and the Majors are about, but you don’t expect a Lieutenant to be regimental out on a small detachment.

This bugger used to creep around at night, in his plimsolls, trying to catch blokes having a smoke or a kip.  It was getting a bit much, him creeping around.  He was bound to catch you!  There wasn’t a duty that you didn’t snatch a smoke or try and have your head down for ten minutes.  Out in the middle of nowhere we didn’t expect all this shit.  It was such a loosely run unit, we used to collect 4d a man for the cook to buy little extras, like spices and things.  The cook had previously been a ship’s cook and we were having a life of Riley, except for this sod who kept us on our toes on guard – which was the worst thing about being there, because on the 24 hours off it was a doddle.  We could go into town  or go and have a drink.  Everybody was seething about this sod.  One night somebody let a round off, across his bows.  That put a stop to it.  The bloke who did said he thought he saw somebody looking suspicious and when he couldn’t get a reply to his challenge he put a round over his head, to stop him.  The officer never again crept around in his plimsolls. On the contrary!  He’d be half a mile away and he’d be shouting “It’s alright sentry, Orderly Officer here, sentry.”

They got you doing all sorts of stupid things, like white-washing the stones around the nissen hut with a little toothbrush

Oxford Lad  The first three or four years in the army were very, very bad, because I never thought the war was going to end at all.  If you ever made a complaint about anything, like the food, you got punished.  They’d take your name and the next thing you knew, you’re on fatigues in the cookhouse.  They got you doing all sorts of stupid things, like white-washing the stones around the nissen hut with a little toothbrush, or they had us blacking the bottom of our boots.  It was all spit and polish.  We had a mirror in the middle of the nissen hut.  You had to look in that before you went out, because the guards on the gate were watching to see if you were properly dressed.   There’d be a few MPs in the town and they’d try and catch you out, for having hands in pockets and that sort of thing.  And you always had to dodge the MPs on the railway station.

Once we had a Warrant Officer – PT bloke – very strict.  I had a travel warrant to travel home.  You had to leave fairly early and I got a chit so that I could, because the connection was at Bletchley.  I was walking down (and in the Services you obey the last order) and this Warrant Officer saw me.  “Where are going?”  I said “I’m going out.”  “You were” he said.  “Get back.”  I had to change back into denims again and had to go down the lecture room.  They were talking about Mills bombs – how to strip them down.  I couldn’t go that night.  I had to go the next morning.

For punishments they would have you running around the square with full kit on, holding your rifle above your head.  I had to do that many times.   Or if your kit wasn’t laid out properly they used to come round and knock it over the floor and you’d get detention.

I actually signed up again in 1945 because I’d got used to the Services by then and I was worried about coming back to unemployment in civilian life.  So I signed on for a short period.

There was no freedom.  It was worse than being in school

ATS Woman   I didn’t like the fatigues in the army.  I didn’t like being told what to do and being told to be up by seven and to be in by a certain time.  If you went on your half day off you still had to be in by a certain time.  There was no freedom.  It was worse than being at school.

It was a mixed Heavy A.A. Battery.  Men and women.  They were a decent lot of girls, from all parts of the country.  That was what I really liked in the army, the comradeship.  I really enjoyed that part of it.  Things like washing the Naafi floor wasn’t very pleasant, or washing up your greasy mess tin in cold water and peeling potatoes and picking up matches because we were going to have an inspection by the Brigadier.

The food was grim.  I couldn’t eat my dinners.  The meat was horse.  I’m sure of it.  I’ve never tasted anything like it since.  The Naafi meal, on the other hand, wasn’t bad.  You’d get beans and things.  That meant a lot to us during the war – beans.  If you went out you had Toc H canteens or YMCA canteens.  There was a big one at Coventry.  In Leamington Spa, which is where we used to go into, there was a cafe there, where you could get lovely cream buns.  That was a real treat.

I’d rather be under men, when it comes to pettiness

The first battery I was posted to was in Kenilworth near Coventry.  This was after the Coventry blitz.  We were in nissen hits with latrines.  When it rained it used to come in and pour onto your bed.  The Medical Officer came ’round and he simply told us to move our beds in between the drips.

Her Husband  You and I met on Birmingham Station once and you were accosted by one of your police.

ATS Woman   Because I’d put my stockings – awful thick things – inside out.

Her Husband  “Excuse me, do you mind if I speak to….”

ATS Woman  I only got a reprimand, but it seemed so petty.  It was typical.  I didn’t really like women officers.  I’d rather be under men, when it comes to pettiness.

I was terrified of the guns going off.  I used to be shaking

I was on a height-finder, which was a machine to find the actual height of the plane.  You could only use that during daylight, and you didn’t get much action during the day.  It was mostly at night, and then you went down to the plotting room and I was a height computer.  You had to get the bearing and angle.  I was terrified of the guns going off.  I used to be shaking.  It was either Cardiff or Birmingham being bombed, and the sirens went, and there I was, running with my hands over my ears, clutching my tin hat.

Being down in the plotting room we heard it all.  At one battery we had 4.8’s, but mostly it was 3.7’s.  They’d have four and we were right in the centre.  I used to jump a mile.  I hated it.  It was the anticipation.  We were taken out of the Royal Artillery in 1944 because we weren’t wanted anymore – because of D Day, and we were transferred to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps.

I was married in 1944, and then I discovered I was pregnant.  I got an automatic discharge in the February of 1945.  When I was first stationed at Kenilworth quite a lot of girls were having babies.  There was one girl – I was going on leave – and she walked with me, and she was very nice and very, very young.  Because of that we had to have medicals every month.  We used to line up, stripped to the waist.  It was sometimes said that girls  wanted to have babies to get out of the services, as if you were pregnant it meant automatic discharge.  We had quite a rash of them.

When I was discharged I believe I was given some clothing coupons, but not any clothing.  I got my discharge for the Monday.  Well, I wasn’t going to stay the week-end, so I did something I’d never really done before.  I travelled all night and I had to risk the MPs not finding me, but I managed to get through to Bristol and arrived safely at Temple Meads.  The other time I did something I shouldn’t have done was with my friend Barbara.  We were fed up.  We didn’t seem to be getting the days off we were due, so one day – it was summer – we decided we’d just take the day off.  We walked out in the morning and got into Coventry and we went to the pictures.  It was Paul Robeson in a picture, down in what is now the centre of Coventry, because Coventry then was all temporary wooden shops.  We went twice to the pictures, and we had a really nice day.  When we got back we got three weeks fatigues – we couldn’t go out for three weeks and we had to do extra work at night.  We weren’t at all rebellious usually.  We were just fed up.

I was shanghaied into bloody army.  I didn’t want to go in but I had no alternative

Boy Soldier   When you signed on, you signed on to complete your Boy’s Service and then eight and four.  You were committed for twelve years. At 14 year old you signed to do until eighteen, and then eight with the colours and four with the reserve.  It’s all abolished now, I think.  The maximum they can get you to sign is five now.

I regretted going into the Boy Soldiers as soon as I went in.  I was shanghaied into bloody army.  I didn’t want to go in but I had no alternative.  It was proposed by bloody headmaster at school.  I was living with my Grandmother and that was hell.  Family were split up.  I’d had me ups and downs, and where could a young lad go?

Even as Boy Soldiers we were on regular routine.  We were on peace-time establishment (this was during the war), but first and foremost you were a soldier.  I went into the Boy’s Army in February ’44.  I was sent to Catterick.  The discipline was absolutely fucking…  – Well, you wouldn’t credit it.  When it came to educating Boy Soldiers it was just bloody sadistic.  Absolutely sadistic.  When you were doing drill they used to have what they called “backsticks”.  What it was, they used to put a brush down your arms, behind your back, put their knee in your back, and you’ve got this stick over your elbows.  This was regular.  You used to go on parade with your brush.  When you got to fifteen they used to swop your brush and give you a rifle, and they used to do the same with that – over your head, and over your shoulder blades.  We were trained in Signals, but everyone, no matter what their trade, had to learn to shoot a rifle.  We used to go up to range and fire so many shots each week.  I was shooting 303’s at fourteen.

My mate, when we saw afterward, he said ” Everyone of you, every time you came out, you were screaming your bleeding heads off”

Paratrooper   I went into the Forces the early part of 1942 and I came out in 1946 because my demob group was put back twice.  I was in the RAF at first but I got transferred to the army.  They took all the A1 blokes out of the airforce and navy and transferred them to the army.  For a minute, a minute before twelve we were civvies.  We could have hopped it and they couldn’t have done anything.  But we were stuck out in the wilds of Lancashire, so it wouldn’t have done us no good, and the camp was well guarded.

When I joined the army we were shoved over to Ireland, Northern Ireland, at the foot of the mountains of Mourne.  It was a hell of a bloody place.  Drizzling with rain every day.  One day they sat us all in the canteen and we were thinking “What the bleeding hell’s going on here?”  Next thing we knew there was a warrant officer and a sergeant came on the stage.  They were in the Parachute Regiment.  They showed us a parachute, how it worked, opening it out.  I said to my mates “‘Ere, if we join that mob we’ll get away from this bleeding place.”

We’d been there a month  and we were supposed to be there three months.  And the bloody rain!   We used to go out of a night time and dig a little hole in the ground, get into it and cover ourselves with our groundsheet.  This was on manoeuvres.  It’d be belting with rain all night.  We were cheesed off with it.  So my mates said “Yeah, that’s a good idea.  Let’s volunteer.”  We all goes up and volunteers.  We have our medicals and it turns out that out of the twelve of us that came out of the RAF I’m the only one that’s passed his medical.  I was lumbered!  I was going to leave my mates – not only that – it turns out that I’ve still got to stay in Ireland for 3 months!  I had to do another lot of groundwork.

I joined the Parachute Regiment just after the Arnhem turnout. (2)   I jumped thirty-two times.  I was on experimental jumping too.  They had half the parachute missing.  It was great.  You only got nerves the second time you ever jumped.  The first time you didn’t  know, but the second time you knew and you was like jelly.  One of my mates on the ground who was waiting his turn, when he saw me afterwards he said “Every one of you, every time you came out you were screaming your bleeding heads off.”  I said “You was the same.”

It was the second one you was frightened of.  It was out of a balloon.  It was horrible that. When you got up there and it stopped and it was quiet.  And it was swaying about.  And you’ve got to make the effort to get out.  With an aircraft the slipstream got you, and you was away.  You never had no chance to change your mind.  But in a balloon you’re eight hundred foot up, you’ve got to make your own effort, and when you look down….

There was not a finer crowd of blokes.  Not army wise, but to go out on the old piss, get in a punch-up

Training in the Airborne was very tough and very strict.    Every morning before breakfast we would have to go on a five mile road run.  We’d finish coming back to one end of the camp.  There were cliffs either side and the gates were in the middle.  There were ropes hanging down this cliff.  You had to come down these ropes backwards and then you ran to the cookhouse and had your breakfast.  You had to do that every morning when you was training.

We had a bloke from the Regimental Police.  He was only 20.  He was a right bastard.  He was a Corporal. We knew that on top of one of these cliffs was a bloody great boulder.  We worked out that when this bloke was coming into camp one night, we’d knock it over.  But somebody must have given him the wheeze, ‘cos on the night concerned he came in another way. There was a couple of blokes coming in that night, instead, and being dark we couldn’t see who they were.  We toppled the boulder over.  Fortunately it missed, but he knew it was meant for him, and he got himself posted.

I wish I’d be in the Airborne right from the start of the war.  I’ve always been glad of the fact that I went through that experience.  There was not a finer crowd of blokes.  Not army wise, but to go out on the old piss, get in a punch-up.  We’d walk round Southampton calling out to all the sailors:  “Come out you bastards!”  They didn’t want to know, did they.

Army Detention Centre Inmate  The vast majority of cases in detention, when I was in, were what they called “non-reporters”.  These were youngsters who, nine cases out of ten, were illiterates – people who couldn’t either read or write – they couldn’t read their notices for call-up.  They were really backward, nervous young people.  When they were caught they had to do a short period – three months or less, I believe, before they entered service.  The others would be people who were absent without leave, of longer than a certain  period, otherwise it would be dealt with by confinement to barracks.  They were a large proportion.  Then we had a strange category of people who had trained as paratroopers, but when it came to it, wouldn’t jump.  They were given eighty-four days as a standing thing – if they continued to refuse to jump after their training period.

I know a lot of people stick up for these blacks in this country, but as far as I was concerned they were savages in 1940

Company Sergeant Major, RASC    When I first joined I was getting ten bob a week.  Five bob for myself and I gave an allowance of five bob to my Mother.  When I got to Africa I was promoted and I was earning more than a Captain was in this country.  Being a little higher promotion in life I was offered to be trained as an officer, but I refused that as I knew I hadn’t the brains for that.  I had a personal servant out there.  The bulk of the senior army staff were whites, and then you had the artisans, who were Asians, and then you had the wogs.  I could speak Swahili.  I passed me exams.  It took me three years.  Five exams I went in.  Failed on four and got through on the fifth.

I know a lot of people stick up for these blacks in this country, but as far as I was concerned they were savages in 1940.  One time we had a convoy coming from Nairobi.  The drivers were Africans, straight out from the bush, from the jungle.  They’d never been given proper training.  They’d never seen a lorry in their life.   Leaving Nairobi was alright, but outside it, going through the villages – (when I say villages, I mean a dozen mud huts every 20 or 30 miles) – they was scared of everything.  In the lorry behind me there was a load of them sitting in the back of the lorry.  The lorry was loaded up with 40 gallon drums.  Going down Mount Kenya the driver lost control of the lorry and it hit a tree and all these 40 gallon drums squashed the ruddy lot.  One of them got killed.  We were losing lorries all the time on that convoy.  There were 80 lorries and we were going to Addis Ababa.  By the time we got there we had 16 lorries left.  They were going down ravines, and off the escarpment in Kenya.

Berbera was the worst place I went to.  That was one of the Death Cells of Africa

We should only have been there three months.  That was the limit, but we was there for nine months.  It’s a wonderful place to look at.  It’s on the Gulf of Aden.  You’re going down to the sea for about a day – you don’t realise it, but you’re gradually going down and down, and it’s getting hotter and hotter and hotter.  When we were there six months when we should only have been there for three, they sent us to a place called Sheikh.  It was a bloody mountain in the middle of the desert.  It took us six hours from the beach to get there.  The road up it was one way.  In the morning it was for going up, and the afternoon you were allowed to come down.

When you got up there, there was all greenery.  There was goats and trees and everything.  And there were all these bloody South Africans, all covered in sores and swollen lips and talking absolutely silly.  They’d been where we’d been for a year and that’s how they were.  When we got up there, there was me and my old mate George.  We was thinking twice whether to go back. We was going to over-do our stay, but as we were NCO’s…  It was when the Italians were still in the war and we were pushing them out of Abyssinia. That’s when I was out there.

The cigarettes we had were diabolical.  The Victory V’s were made in India.  What also were rough were the South African Springboks and Cape to Cairo

Mechanic, North African Campaign   With the trash, and I repeat, the trash they were sending out regarding tanks, such as Matildas and Valentines, you couldn’t defeat a bloody Girl Guide.  The guns on them were pathetic.  The Matilda did have a skirt ’round the tracks, admittedly.  See, if you hit a tank’s tracks you’ve knocked him out.  And after you’ve stopped him you brewed him up with a shelling of petrol or something like that.  It’s the most unhappy thing for anybody when a tank brews up.

There were three hundred American tanks diverted from the Pacific theatre of war.  They were called Grant and Shermans, with Wright Cyclone radial engines in them, and we do honestly believe that they turned the day.  Up until they arrived there was, for instance, a tank battle that took place at El Coquier, midway between Gambut and Tobruk, and there sixty tanks brewed up in that battle.  We saw the wrecks of the bloody things with tracks twisted and guns pointed upwards, and blackened where the poor sods had burnt in them.

When it was June you’d not work from twelve to five.  Siesta.  It was daylight to ten, half past, so you’d make up that leeway and work from 5 to 10.  Tanks were coming back needing repairs, lorries were coming back, needing repairs.  You had to get cracking on it because there was a push on.  You were far enough back to work in comparative safety, although no-one’s safe when there’s a bomber about.

We had biscuits out there, that I didn’t like, but “M & V” which we started to get – meat and veg – that was quite nice.  And what the cooks could do with corned beef was nobody’s business.  We also got fishcakes.  We didn’t like them, and the cigarettes were diabolical.  The Victory V’s were made in India.  What also were rough were the South African Springboks and Cape to Cairo.  And then, somebody said it was thanks to Montgomery, we started getting decent fags – Woodbines and Senior Service and Capstan.  But even then, the stuff that went to make your free ration was rubbish.    You knew it was going to be rough, so no good crying about it.  If you let it get you down, you come out your tent, look north, look south, east and west, there’s not a bloody thing to see.  You think to yourself  “What have I let myself in for?”  You take 118 degrees fahrenheit.  That’s warm.  I went for four showers one afternoon in a place called Tel el-Kabir.  It didn’t make any difference.  I went across the desert on a motorbike.  Still bloody hot.  There’s a hot wind coming at you.  You didn’t know what to do with yourself.

Old Churchill came over at Alamein, just prior to the push, and come up with his cigar and his “V” – Victory sign.  “Better times around the corner.”  And we were going  “And when are you going to get us home, you pot-bellied old bastard?”

I still believe the finest general of the Second World War was Rommel. A soldier and a gentleman.  When he over-run Tobruk, and over-run a hospital he personally went round and see if there was anything he could do for the wounded – British and Allied wounded.

Montgomery was a…..  He brought his Leyland Retriever – which was made into a mobile living quarters – he brought that in for a job to be done on it.  Bleeding thing – where it could be locked up, it was locked up.  He had a 24 hour guard on the bleeding thing.  They couldn’t lock the cab up because we had to work on it.  He used to sit in it and read a passage from the Bible, or a Prayer Book, then he’d work out what sort of push he’d have tomorrow.

Old Churchill came over at Alamein, just prior to the push, and come up with his “V” – Victory sign.  “Better times around the corner.”  And we were going “And when are you going to get us home, you pot-bellied old bastard?”  That’s how much time they had for him.

At Suez we were cutting up rough because we were working during the day and then, as soon as we were finished, they got us digging trenches – slit trenches.  We  weren’t happy about that.  There was a lot of muttering going on.  We used to be able to get into Suez and go to the pictures.  I remember seeing that Laurence Olivier as a horrible beast in some film – can’t remember the name. (3)   Now that we were digging these bloody slit trenches all that suddenly stopped.  We dug them because they said if they didn’t hold Rommel at El Alamein we’d be so thin on the ground after that, he’d push straight through to Alex, straight past the Pyramids, through Cairo and straight down.

As a result of our mutterings the CO got us on parade.  Captain Phillip Brownlow – “Pigshead”.  “It’s been brought to my attention,” he said “that there is mutterings.  Men don’t like what is happening.  I don’t know if you realise it, but up in the other side of Alex men are dying.  The fact that you have been instructed to dig slit trenches means that if they’re not held, you will have to stand in these trenches and defend your camp.”  Thanks a lot!  He said  “All I want to impress upon you people is that if this sort of muttering goes on, it’s tantamount to mutiny – the punishment of which is death!”  Nice feller, we thought.

As it happens, of course, they held him at Alamein knowing that they couldn’t be encircled.  Meanwhile Jerry had stretched his lines of communication to such an extent that his fuel wasn’t catching him up and he had to stop and rest.

Montgomery drove into Tripoli 23 January and automatically closed all the brothels!  That made him very popular!

After that we never went backwards.  They were on the retreat for good.  You had to see it to believe it when that retreat started from El Alamein.  The Italians – I’m not exaggerating – must have been a line three abreast from here to Liverpool Street.  Almost two miles.  Terrific line.  Eyeties of all shapes and sizes.  They didn’t want to know, they were so dejected.  The Jerries took any decent transport they had, took what was any use to them, and said “Piss off, we don’t want you.”  They just left them.  They were an encumbrance.  The poor sods were saying “Aqua, aqua – water, water.”  Pathetic.  But when they were top dogs they were bastards.  Oh yes.  The Germans were different, they would give you an even break.  With the Germans, I think we were pretty much the same as they were.  They wasn’t short on guts.  They’d fight.  I’m not talking about Nazis – I’m talking about ordinary German serving soldiers.  Funnily enough, you had a lot of time for each other, so you thought to yourself “What the bloody hell are we fighting about?”

I was having a cognac with a German, Christmas – just south of Tobruk.  We’d built a big hangar, sort of cross pieces and canvas over the top, and we used to repair our guns there.  We went to the Naafi and got some drinks.  Next to us was an American Liberator squadron.  We invited them into our place, they invited us into theirs.  I was having a drink with the Free French down the road – everybody was there in North Africa – South Africans, Australians, Kiwis, coloureds – there was a terrific number of Indians fighting in North Africa: 4th Indian Division, 9th Indian Division.  Anyway, I’m having this drink with this German and he’s got this French Foreign Legion uniform on. He tells me “I’m German.” “German!”  “Yes.  I come from Frankfurt.”  I said “How do you feel about going against your fellow countrymen?”  “Well,” he said “I signed the papers for the Legion and I go where the Legion takes me.”

There was the feeling that the infantry man was the shite of the war

Fusilier   There was the feeling that the infantry man was the shite of the war.  He was just shit.  He was canon fodder.  There was a feeling in the infantry that could you could drop more shit and bombs on top of people’s heads than you could throw up, at the guy up the stairs.  The navy might fight a battle with their long distance guns, and they might fight and know that if they survived it, they might be able to return to base where he could get a normal meal and a good kip at night and go down the town and meet his bit of stuff.  I’m not saying it was a great life for a sailor at sea during the war – there was the threat of U boats, and all the rest of it.  I would never have liked the thought of spending a night in the sea, but that apart, sailors got fed well.  They could almost be sure of getting their grub.  We were on troopships.  We seen what went on.  But we, we were shite.  We were part of the dirt.  When we dug a hole, that’s where we slept for fucking weeks on end, wondering what was happening.  Guys trying to bomb us from the top, and other guys trying to shoot at us from different angles.  Everybody trying to pound us into the ground.

Many of the guys there would have been just as comfortable sitting in a Nazi or SS uniform

When we were sent to India, for some reason or other, most of the guys seemed to take a completely different stance, as if they’d been set free in some kind of way.  They became as bad as what I thought the Nazis were.

When we arrived in Kalyan (4) the overall Commanding Officer took the whole shipload of us and said  “Well, you are now in India.  Forget about your democratic ideas.  This is a completely different situation here, and I’ll expect you to treat these people” – it was “these wogs” – “in the same way as the regulars have been treating then for hundreds of years.”  It was like giving everybody an individual licence to what they effing well liked.  And to be quite frank, they did.  In lots of ways I wasnae terribly happy about my own people, round about me.

The same day as we got this lecture from the Commanding Officer at Kalyan a couple of children came into the barracks.  We’re all lying in our charpoys, all out.  Heat killing us.  The children came round begging – and I would say there were about twenty to thirty blokes in the room, each side, and it’s safe to say the majority of them were sitting with their penises out, waving them at the kids – “Come over here.  Suck this.”  Some of them hit the kids, but these kids were so pushed around all through their life that they just took it.  They didnae bother with it.  I would suggest I was more affected than they were.  I was over-sensitive to the situation.

The kids came to me and I gave them some money and I finally got the children out.  Then I got up on my bed and said “Listen, the lot of yous – there’s no need for you what’ve just done.  If they’re begging, we’re partly responsible for their begging.  If you don’t want to give them money just say ‘No, chase it.’  All these actions that yous are making, exposing your penises and asking them to suck it, there’s never any need for that.  You’re just degrading yourself, and putting yourself in the same situation as the people you’re supposed to be fighting against – the Nazis.”  I’d have been as well talking to a brick wall.

Many of the guys there would have been just as comfortable sitting in a Nazi or SS uniform.  It got to the stage where it looked as if I was going to have to fight everybody.  I was in Kalyan  for a couple of weeks and by the time we had left not one individual would have said or touched one of the Indians whilst I was around.  That’s the kind of character I was.  I was well known.  I wasnae liked by the officers.  They preferred the men to be the other way.

One of the big complaints about soldiers in the Far East – they called them the Forgotten Army – was that they werenae getting their mail.  I know why they werenae getting their mail.  The guys were half-inching it

In the first days I was in India I was sent to the Post Office department in Kalyan, where the mail was distributed through India to the front line.  One of the cries in the Post Office department was “Wonder what’s in that?  Open it up!”  If it was cigarettes or something they thought might be perishable, they used to say “Och, he’ll probably be deid.”  That’s the reason why guys werenae getting their mail sometimes.  It wasnae a matter of going into the Post Office and regimental freedom-loving British soldiers saying “Oh yes, that’s got to go to this regiment, they’re up there fighting at the front.”  It was “What’s in it!  Let’s see.  Fags!  Gie us that.  Och, he’ll be deid.”  That was the attitude.  I daresay the guys at the front would have done the same if they’d been at the other end.

When I went out there they were  reforming the Chindits again.  Wingate got killed in a crash, so they started up a second unit

If I remember right,  the first unit was made up of units like the Black Watch that had come from Tobruk, where they’d been slaughtered,  and there were very few of them left. (5)   I believe the unit was even made up by deserters from the French Foreign Legion.  Och, it was a shambles their lot.  When I went into it, that was the situation – it was the tatters and the remains.  They were building it up into a fighting unit again.

I was in the Royal Scots Fusiliers at the time and suddenly, like that, I’m switched over and I was in the Black Watch, which was an airborne unit.  Perhaps it was a good way to get rid of a difficult character.  Anyway, that’s where I went, and I must confess the first night I spent there I lay all night in tears – and I was a tough character.  I had salt burns right down each side of my face – just seeing the state of the men.  Oh it was terrible.  It was like being planted in hell.  They were just bones – just sitting – drinking jungle juice.  My first impression was that I was in hell, and this was all the devils – thin arms, fighting one another.  It was a madhouse.

Within a couple of weeks I was one of the toughest amongst the lot of them.  We were being trained for a mainland landing.  All the training was happening a hell of quick.  It was hell.  We lost people in river crossings that were equal to anything you seen in that North West Passage. (6)    You don’t need a human enemy to beat you in the jungle.  I’ve been in marches – and this is no talking about being in action – this was patrols and training that lasted fourteen days – fifteen days – where we were hacking our way through the jungle with machetes.  Officers with maps trying to figure out where there might be a water hole, and coming to a big salt lake and guys collapsing – hundreds of men lying out, leaving them to die – I’m talking about dying with nothing happening.  Nothing to do with Japanese.  There was nothing you could do, except leave them.

The first experience I had of being without water was one particular time when we were right out of water – completely out, and we came to an old paddy field cum water pool. There was oxen in it, and it was covered in green slime and oxen shit.  The officer said “That’s your water.”  We all just sat and looked at it.  “No drinking that.”  “No touching that.”  We couldnae have been bad enough because we didnae want to touch it.  We were issued with chlorine tablets to put in to it, to purify it.  As I say, we didn’t want to touch it.  But we’re starting to learn.  We sat there for about half an hour, camping by the thing. Slowly but surely chuggles were getting filled up, and the tablets in. When we started to march there wasnae any chuggles hanging down the front.  They were all hanging down the back.  Still nobody’s touching it,  but one by one it’s “Fuck your slime, fuck your dirt.” It was OK.  It was a wee bit chloriney taste – but it was water.

Our grub on patrols was mostly K ration.  The story was that the Americans rejected it.  They wouldnae have it, and gave it to us.  It was a pack with an oily surface, and inside it was all the things Americans liked – funny things – things that British people don’t eat.  One of the things was a laxative bar that was like ten million flies compressed.  It was so bad that I went a long time without any food.  I couldnae eat it.  I done my best.  There were things we tried to eat.  Was it also soup and coffee in it?  I can’t remember.  The reason for the thing being oily was that you opened it and halved it, turned it up on its edge and lit it.  The oil and the grease kept it burning and you were able to cook it.  It was shite.  Honestly.  I’m convinced more guys ended up with stomach troubles, than with anything else.  (7)

As far as patrols in the jungles – most of the guys on both sides spent their time trying to avoid each other, if they could

You got the fanatical officer or the guy who wants a battle, but they were few and far between.  First time I ever saw a Japanese was a prisoner of war.  I shite myself, to be quite honest.  You had heard all these tales, about all these horrible Japanese and how they fight to the death.  On this occasion two Japanese were under the custody of an American guard. He asked us to give them our rifle, with our scabbard – bayonet – on.   It might sound strange, but we couldn’t see that was the right thing to do, but eventually we gave our rifles, and the Japanese took up a stance to give us a demonstration in how they fought each other using bayonets.  The American guy said “They’re like anybody else.  For a few scraps of extra grub they’ll show you anything.  Even sell their Granny.”  That was a big lesson.  You were beginning to feel there wasn’t much difference really, in a lot of ways, between how we felt and how they felt.

I could sit down and write page after page of atrocities that happened

I’ve a mate.  A great bloke, honestly.  He was a conscientious objector, and lay in Barlinnie Prison for nearly six months with no clothes, rather than put on the army uniform.  That’s what they done.  Left them without any clothes.  He eventually put the uniform on.  Once he put it on he gave up, and became a soldier.  He was in Imphal, and he had just come back out of the first Chindit trip. (8)   A great bloke, but in some ways, evil with it.  I seen him getting Indian women and raping them.  Smashing their face in and raping until it got so bad that I had to fire at them to get them off.  I was known.  I had a reputation, and once I started threatening them, they got frightened.  I seen things like that.  Old women with their tits hanging down like chapatis  – raping them.  They’d women with kids, forcing them to squirt the milk out of their breast.  Things that were – if you’d seen it, you’d say “Oh, that’s Nazis”, but that was British troops.  Guys that you think butter wouldnae melt in their mouth in Britain.  I’ll never forget that.  Never, never forget that.  Never.

I.   Scapa Flow.  British Naval Base.

2.  Arnhem.  A disastrous Allied attempt to capture the Dutch town of Arnhem and several bridges over the Nederrijn river in September 1944.  The British Ist Airborne Division lost nearly three quarters of its strength, and never saw active service again.

3.  The ‘horrible beast’ that Laurence Olivier played was Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939).

4.  Kalyan is  just inland on the eastern seaboard of India, near Mumbai (Bombay).

5.  The Black Watch were not part of the first formation of Chindits.  The 2nd Gurkha Rifles and the 3rd Battalion Gurkha Rifles and the 13th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool regiment were the main elements.  The Black Watch did take severe injuries and loss of life at Tobruk, and were part of the second formation and expedition of the Chindit force.

6.  North West Passage, (1940), directed by King Vidor with Spencer Tracy.

7.  K rations.  The Wikipedia entry on K rations quotes that at the sight of K Rations “two of Wingate’s men vomited.”

8.  The battle of Imphal, and the battle of Kohima,  March – July, 1944 resulted in the largest defeat Japan had, up until then, experienced.  The battle was largely fought by Allied Indian Regiments.  The Chindits were involved in behind the lines harrying activity.  Their military impact was not of great significance, but it is claimed – though proof  not given – it had a positive psychological impact within the Allied Forces in the Indian sub-continent.  Arguments still continue on the  effectiveness of the Chindits.

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14 War Work

1937 work was changing.  Everywhere.  They was after production.  They knew as this war was going to come off

London Woman  When Stan first went in the army they sent him to Nottingham.  The used to march down this street and this woman asked Stan and a few others if they’d like to have a bath. She lived in a miner’s cottage and they’d had one of the bedrooms converted into a bathroom.  Stan got to know her and when I went down for week-ends she used to give up a room for me.

Her Husband  She was very, very good to us.  Her husband was a miner.  He took Marge and me down the mine.  Never again.  This was 1940.  Before they were modernised.  We had to sign to go down, that they wouldn’t be responsible if anything happened.  We went right to the coalface.  Went by train, in this little truck underneath.  On a Sunday morning he took us.  You were sitting humped up.  It was bloody terrible.  The miners were working flat on their bellies.  I don’t know whether they still do it.  It was shocking.  Hacking it out.  We had to turn our lights off.  It was a terrible feeling.  Terrible.  Deadly silence.  All you could hear was the trickle of water.  We saw the ponies. The air was dank, like a very damp cellar.  I was glad to get up.

Staffordshire Born  Miner  1937 work was changing.  Everywhere.  They was after production.  They knew as this war was going to come off.  In 1937 they was putting your wages up.  From 7/7d you raised to ten bob; from 9/7d you raised to thirteen bob.  If you was a collier, from 9/11d (I’m talking about day rate minimum) they went onto piecework.  If you couldn’t get your stint out, if you was in a place where it was hard, you was still guaranteed a basic of £1 per shift.  That was £6 a week.

When the war was on they started Pit Production Committees.  So many miners was on them, but they was union men – full time officials.  They’d come down the pit and have a look around – inspecting, and this, that and the other.  Every pit had a board strung up.  All the collieries from Wigan to Manchester area was on the board giving the productions every day.  If you’d drawn more than your tonnage off the pit they put a flag on top.  That flew.  You got so much extra money for that.  Everybody got that except the little lad that was fetching the stuff to you.  He didn’t get a ha’penny.  That was the haulage hand.  I say this:  he should be privileged to have the same money ‘cos he’s working in the same conditions.  He’s working sometimes under the worst conditions.

I was working in a seven foot seam at Moston in what they called “Foxholes”, and it was foxholes too.  Inferior coal.  It wasn’t fit to burn in a boiler.  They were taking anything out!  Production was production.  It was only dust!  No matter where you went, they were opening districts out.  That was one of the reasons for the 1944 strike. They wanted a bit tooo much out of the miners and they wouldn’t pay for it.  (1)

The owners were trying to force you to work in districts that had been closed because of fire.  I’ll name you a few:  the William Pit, the Haig – how many disasters were there?  They were opening up districts where men had been killed and left in.  They was trying to open them up again and get men to work in them.  I went into one – the Lightbowen in Moston Colliery.

It was closed for over 20 years and they said “Go and open it up.”  They sent a  dozen of us to take the brick-stoppings out at the main level, to go in.  When you go through the main doors you have to shut this door to open the middle one, and then shut that to open the other one, on account of the air pressure.  When you go in you can smell the must in the air.  The stagnant air.  Keep down – don’t rise above your standing height or else – curtains.  You was on the deck.  When we went in there all we were sending out were coke, not coal.  It was burnt to hell.  And then when we got to the coal face it was red hot. Get out!  We was working with nowt on and just us clogs.  It was putting lamps out as quick as you were getting them lit.

Another thing during the war was the Tribunals.  We’ll say you were absent Monday, work Tuesday, play Wednesday, work Thursday, go for your wages Friday, and that was it – you were first in pub.  If you were a collier you went in front of a Tribunal.  They stopped you on the coalface.  You wasn’t allowed near a coalface after that.  Your money was dropped.  You was still working at the pit, but on haulage, on haulage rate.  They wouldn’t let you back onto the face until they thought you’d learnt your lesson

Nobody liked it when the Bevin Boys came in.  The Bevin Boys, some of them were glass they hadn’t got to go in the Army

The Bevin Boys were conscripts sent down the mines.  (2)   You got all sorts as Bevin Boys. Sons of mill owners, besides mill lads, what was the age of 18. ‘cos they were drafted in.  We was asked to take so many Bevin boys after they’d done their training on the top.  That was ninety days down the pit, but you couldn’t take them near the coalface.  They was only allowed in fetching timber, where I worked, in from the airways.  You see, you’ve got so many different roads.  You’ve got top, middle and main – that was where your coal was coming from.  Your middle was a good retreat if anything happened.  Your top was where all the timber went in – at the top of the face and was distributed all down the face.  Whatever was wanted from four foot props to ten foot.  They used the Bevin Boys for bringing timber, or on the roadways, or tramming – shoving the tubs from the main places to where it was wanted.  In some parts they did have what they called a trainee face.

The gaffers came to you and said “I want you to take three or four Bevin Boys.”  You knowed they’d had their training on the top and that they had to come down the pit, but you were under a liability because if a lad got killed it was our fault because we were supposed to be training them.  Even if he only got a nick in his little finger – we were liable.  They weren’t allowed near the face.  If they were doing any mischief they was near on getting themselves killed, on the coal belts and pans, and one thing and another.  They used to venture near the bottom of the face.  We’ll say the fireman was on and he was firing shots – there was a big responsibility there, ‘cos I seen one Bevin Boy near on run into danger.  We’d say they were firing shots and he says “Where? Where?”, and he were going to run toward it.  “Gert out!”  We knocked him out of the road. “Get thee bottle and get off!  Get as far along the face as thee can.”  But you had to work with them, so there was no sense in resenting them.  You got to fetch them into the company.

When the lads went into the war when it first started, and they went from different pits, it was “Oh, when you come back the job will be here waiting for you.”  Was it?  No.  They came back in 1945 and they were told “There’s no job for you.”  Same as the First World War.  “We’ll make it fit for heroes to come back to.”  Was it?  Was it heck.

The young electricians didn’t want the dames in the docks because they realised that if the dames came in they’d be in the forces or drafted elsewhere

London Electrician, Ex -Communist Party Member  About six weeks after the war started I was asked by the union to go up to Liverpool, to the Docks because they had a terrific problem with organisation.  Foulkes was the union bod up there.   At this stage we were concerned with building up the union and protecting the Party, as we were Commie-Nazis as far as the bastards were concerned. (3)   I made quite a success up there, but I got my call-up papers and where I was working at the time the Essential Works Order didn’t apply. (4)   So the union advised me to go back down to the London Docks where the EWO was applying, and that way I wouldn’t get called up.  By this time Germany had attacked Russia and we were fully supporting the war.

I found when I got down there that there was an awful lot of reactionary trade unionists in charge of the docks.  For instance, on the problem of dilution, all the young electricians didn’t want the dames in the docks because they realised that if the dames came in they’d be in the forces or drafted elsewhere.  We had a hell of a fight to get the girls established.

I was given one of them because they knew my attotude to bringing the girls into the docks, and getting on with the war effort.  She was one of the first dozen who were introduced for the first time in the Green and Siley Weir – “Green and Slimey” at Albert Dock.  These girls were put through training schemes run by the Ministry of Labour.  The girl I got, Jess, was 21.  Course, most of the boys, when the girls were there, all they were thinking about was getting the girls down in the bunk and having a bit of crumpet!

I made a terrific impression on the rest of the workforce because I taught her how to handle her tools properly.  In fact she got to handling her tools so well that she was handling them like a born mechanic.  I had boilermakers queuing up like swallows on a line, just to watch her work.  In fact she was so good she put the shits up me one time.

We were doing a radar station on a ship.  It was a destroyer.  There were three radar sets on this ship.  I’d taught her for marking out how to investigate the other side of the bulkhead – to see that there was no tank she she would drill a hole into – oil, water, or a steam pipe, and so on.  On this occasion she’s setting and popping for her drilling, for a load of clips.  I was doing something with some gear below her, on my knees.  I happened to look up and there was Jess, instead of being flat foot and on balance, leaning over (something was in her way) and she’s popping out with a 2 lb ball hammer – bonk, bonk.  If another ship had passed and just hit the deck, Jess would have smashed her fingers and chopped them off, she was putting so much power into it.  My heart was in my mouth.  I daren’t say a word in case I upset her.  I had to wait until she got on an even balance.  I said “For Christ’s sake, don’t forget you’re on a ship.  If another ship passes and you’re leaning, off balance, you can’t do anything to control it.  Always see that you’re well balanced on your feet so that if a ship knocks you don’t come to harm.”

Once we’d got the girls accepted they then introduced the question of drafting some of the young electricians from London up to Scotland where the wages were lower and the conditions bad

Obviously, they didn’t want to go.  The whole of the electrical dock labour force in London was up in arms over this question.  Some of their leaders – reactionary types – were really rubbing their hands.  They were going to have me over a barrel.  The masses were all behind them and they wanted to see how I came up and tackled this.  I had a very difficult job at this particular meeting on the ship because all the rotten bastards who were trying to dodge the column were with me, on this one.  They were well in with the firm.  They wouldn’t be drafted.  It would be the militants and the other boys who would get it.

All these lumps of shit got up and spoke first about why the boys should go.  The overwhelming majority were of course against it, and they got me on toast.  They said “What about you ——?  You’ve been preaching greater war production all the time – now let’s see your working class ideas.”  I had quite a raw bash.  They accepted the point about if we lost to Hitler we’d have no trade unions at all, but I didn’t convince them on the issue of making the best use of manpower.  I did later on, but not at the time.

With all my yak about the war effort they’d put me on the spot.  My mate turned to me.   “Don’t be so silly.  You’ll freeze up there”

I had quite a reputation for being genuine and sincere.  No question of  preaching “Don’t do as I do, do as I tell you.”  Question of having a go.  There was a blizzard on in the docks.  A real bastard, and I was working down inside this corvette and the charge hand, who wasn’t a bad lad, came over to see me and said “——, I don’t like approaching you on  this job at all, but you’re the only fellow we can approach on a problem we’ve got.  The position is, there’s a convoy due to go out tomorrow and the destroyer that’s to protect the convoy has no recognition lights.  The lights were sent from the Midlands, but they’ve got lost in transit.  Consequently, without the ship, the convoy can’t go and it’s holding up the war effort.  But there’s recognition lights on this corvette, up on the mast head.  If we can get these down we can fit them on the other ship and the convoy can get away tomorrow.  Unfortunately the shipwrights have knocked off,  and I know there’s a blizzard on, but if you would, we’d like you to go up there and take them down.”  With all my yak about the war effort they’d put me on a spot.  I said “Alright, I’ll go. Get a bosun’s chair rigged up.  I’ll get the bloody thing down.”  My mate turned to me.  “Don’t be so silly.  You’ll freeze up there.  And you might fall.”  I said “Look Tanky, the boys are fighting out there in all conditions and they’re risking everything.  I can’t preach to these lads about the war effort and not go up there.”

They rigged up the bosun’s chair and I went up and got the bloody thing down.  When I got down I went to the foredeck of this corvette and there was one of those little pot bellied round stoves.  I stood just inside the door and the heat!  My hands, my knees, my whole body was frozen, but the heat was killing me.  But the effect of me getting these lights down, the effect on the other trades was, whereas previously the shipwrights and the boilermakers – anybody outside was inside dodging the column – now it was “If a fucking electrician can do that, so can we!”  They turned out, blizzard or no!

When the war broke out, on the dock we were only casual labourers

Bootle Docker   With casualisation it was very easy for the bosses to blacklist people.  They done it to me.  I was ten years unemployed before the war.  I wasn’t alone.  There was three thousand in my branch unemployed, and the union done nothing about that.  And men, not registered dockers, were being employed because they weren’t paying them the full rate.

When the war broke out  we were still casual workers and we got a card, not a tally, not a Board of Trade tally, but a card which stated “His Majesty’s Government.  Required for Urgent Work”.  It was stamped, with your number on it.  You was hired of a morning, at a ship’s stand.  The card’s taken off you.  It’s kept until five o’ clock, when they give it you back.  You’re only on for the day.  The Bosses wouldn’t have it any other way.  They were to casual labour.  It was hire and fire.

We started as permanent workers in 1940.  When the Essential Works Order went through the House, in it was the de-casualisation of dockers, and the dockers taken over by the Government.  That mean’t Government money to the employers.  They were well compensated because every one of them inflated their wage bill.  No exceptions.  One time-keeper that I know, he wasn’t a time-keeper at all!  He was the same as myself – an ordinary docker, but he was picked up by a firm and made a time-keeper.  He looked after his firm’s interests.  He got a fiddle for them, and he got a fiddle for himself by inflating the wage bill, which he said was his instructions.

Know what the fiddle was?  The more money they paid out in wages they had 10% on top of that from the Government, to cover the bill.  You was making it for them!

With Liverpool being the major port for the North Atlantic trade all ships carrying explosives never entered the Mersey. (5)   They were diverted to Holyhead.  I worked at Holyhead at them.  I was foreman there.  I took a gang of me own with me.

Everybody’s searched on the pier at Holyhead.  You’ve got to take your boots off and you’ve got to put canvas shoes on, your matches and cigarettes are all taken. When you’ve done your job you come back to the Pier, get off the Police Patrol boat and your gear’s taken out of the little lockers that it’s in and given to you, and you got your wages on the railway station.  I’ll tell you good it was.

As a foreman I was paid two bob a day extra plus two bob a day explosives – four bob a day over and above the basic rate – which was £15 a week.  When we went to Holyhead the train fare was paid for us.  We used to get the Irish mail  to Holyhead.  When the payday come up you get in the queue at the railway station – at the box where you get your tickets.  The timekeeper’s in there and he’s got the list.  You walk in and give your tally number and your name, to identify yourself, even though they know you.  You tell the man what you want.  You do that even in the Clearing House – how much you want.  You never ask exactly for what you want – you spring it by about five bob to six bob.  You don’t get it if it’s not booked for you, but there’s always the chance they’ve made a mistake in the book, and then you have it.  My father learnt me that.  Anyhow, I’m at the counter, before me brother.  My brother’s behind me, Frankie.  He was an air raid warden.  I thought to myself, about £18.  I said “£18 ten.”  And he pays me £18 ten.  I says to Frankie “Sing out good.”  So he sings out good, goes the same as me, and gets it!  There was a fiddle on.  Know what the fiddle was?  The more money they paid out in wages they had 10% on top from the Government to cover their bill.  You was making it for them!  But you was getting a bit of a cut out of it.

Two farmers came who were working for the Agricultural Committee, and one of them turned ’round and said to me “If your bloody husband isn’t fit to do the farming, let the bugger get out”

Somerset Farmer  I was working for my Father before the war. He was working for his Father.  When we got married and got the farm in 1940 we had to go with what the farmer did before.  We was more or less tied to what he done.  I wanted to start pig keeping but I couldn’t because the Ministry wouldn’t allow me any food to keep the pigs with.  We were allowed so many coupons for so many acres, according to the number of cows to the acreage.  You had to have the coupons to buy cow cake.  This was the milk producing county and before the war the Depression hit our milk.  My father was selling milk at 4d and 5d and 6d a gallon.  That was rock bottom.

When we got married and got the farm we had between fifty and sixty acres. We had to have ploughed ground because the Agricultural Committee came around and told us.  We had four fields out of our little bit ploughed up.  It was the first time we’d done any arable, and yet there was someone only two farms away, if you go how the crow do fly, who had a hundred acres and he never ploughed an inch.  He reckoned none of his farm was suitable, and they never made him plough it.  What he done, when the Ministry men came, he deliberately took them where he knew stones was near the surface.  He could get extra rations for his cattle – extra coupons for cake – extra potatoes, all manner of things we couldn’t get, because he had no arable.

You had to pay for having your land ploughed.  We had no equipment for ploughing.  We hired the disc harrows.  The County Agricultural Committee had contractors that you could contact and they would send a man with a tractor and plough, and plough your ground.  When it came to sowing you had to go behind the tractor to work the drill.  My husband nearly got poisoned doing that.  He had to watch and make sure every one of these drills was letting seed out, that none of them did get blocked up with soil.  The tractor fumes did come back and come up around him and he was ill for two days with carbon monoxide poisoning.

Another time, when they came, he was really ill.  He was under the doctor, he was so ill.  I didn’t know whether I was going to be a widow, or not.  It was the last field we had to plough up and two farmers came who were working for the Agricultural Committee and one of them turned ’round and said to me “If your bloody husband isn’t fit to do farming, let the bugger get out and let someone else do it.”  I said, under my breath “You bugger!  You ought to bloody drop dead” – and he were dead in six weeks!  One of these farmers came from Ditcheat and the other from Cranmore.  They had big farms.  They had plenty of men to do the work.  They didn’t know what it was to do a day’s work themselves.

My husband got so tired the doctor put him on they benzedrine pills, to keep him awake

We had a helper and my husband and he, they used to do as much field work as possible and then the man did go home.  The cows would be brought into the yard, and then my husband would come in and have his tea.  He used to sit down and rest for an hour.  Sometimes he was so tired, I’d have a job to get him to get up and go out and start the milking.

We were working from six in the morning to 12 at night.  we had double summertime and we’d stay out in the hayfield until it was getting dark.  We had an elevator and a tractor and we used to hire other men to come and help us with the haymaking.  They’d go home and then the cows would come in, and many a night my husband and I started milking between 11 o’ clock and 12 o’ clock.  We were milking by hand because we didn’t have a milking machine at that time and it’d be 2 o’ clock by the time we’d finished milking our cows, and washed the cow stall down and scrubbed out the dairy – and we had to be up again next morning.  We had thirty-two cows and twelve head of young stock.

My husband got so tired the doctor put him on they benzedrine pills to keep him awake.  This was during the winter, after working all those long hours in the summer.  One night he went out to do the milking, and I stayed up, instead of going to bed.  I kept on looking at the clock and I thought “What on earth is he doing?  He ought to have finished milking by now.”  I went out to see where he were to.  All the cows were tied up in the cow stall.  They’d ate all their hay.  Looked in the buckets.  No milk in.  The buckets were clean.  Well, where was he to?  I went to go in the engine house – there he was: stretched out on the floor.  I tried to wake him up.  I couldn’t wake him!  I began to get panicky.  I thought he was dead.  It was nearly five minutes before I could get him to come round, and as he came round he jumped to his feet and swung up his fist and I jumped back.  His fist just missed the side of my head.  “Good God!” he said, “Where am I?”

I said “Do you know what time it is?  You’ve been stretched out there in front of the boiler, on the coal.”  He was so frightened, he said “That’s the last of they benzedrine pills I’m going to take.”

They scratched their heads.  “Farmer sent back a cheque for four and a half acres of wheat subsidy for four and a half acres of wheat?”  They couldn’t make it out.  They sent a man to see us.  “Why did you send the the cheque back?”

We had to plough up four and a half acres of field for arable, we had to put wheat in.  A man from the Ministry was to supposed to come and examine the field in the Spring to see that the field had been ploughed up and the corn planted.  You didn’t get your subsidy until about the time it was harvested.  Come July or August time we had a cheque come for four and a half acres on four and a half acres of wheat.  My husband sent it back.  They scratched their heads.  “Farmer sent back a cheque for four and a half acres of wheat subsidy for four a half acres of wheat?”  They couldn’t make it out.  They sent a man to see us.  “Why did you send the cheque back?”

What had happened was that it was supposed to have been Spring sown.  We had to hire someone to come and cultivate it, but it had been a very, very wet Spring, and the contractor had got bogged down on the ground, and by the time they got ’round to our farm it was too late to plough to put it down to corn.  So he sowed quick growing hay, not wheat.  “Do you know”, this chap said, “one of our Ministry men have been and examined your fields and he said wheat was growing well and that you had a good crop.  We’ll have to investigate this.”

Course, all the farms that this particular man had supposed to have inspected – they went ’round, and hardly any of them had planted the wheat because of the wet weather.  I think we were the only one that had sent the subsidy back.  The other farmers had to send their cheques back.  The chap who had originally inspected got the sack.

Her Husband  Some of these inspectors, they’d come ’round in their car and some of the farmers would give them a glass of cider and they would go off without even bothering to look at the wheat.  There was one man, if he were inspecting you, he’d come ’round and he’d say “You’d better plough up this ground” and if you said “I don’t want to plough up this ground”, he’d say “It’s alright – we’ll sign the paper and say it is ploughed.” The farmer got so much for it and the Ministry man got so much.

Somerset Farmer  We know one farmer that got had £20 an acre subsidy on growing potatoes, and he put in about eight acres of potatoes.  He never dug the potatoes out and the following year he claimed another £20 per acre for potatoes.

You had to be careful.  We never had any meat off our farm no more than a rabbit.  That was the only thing we had off our farm – a rabbit.

At one time when bacon was very short I used to buy bacon bones and I used to put so many bacon bones in the pan.  They used to smell nice and a little bit of fat did come out.  Enough fat did come out the bacon bones to allow you to fry an egg.  I know somebody came to my door one day and said “Cor, you farmers!  You’re having a good breakfast today.”  I said “Yes, bacon bones and a fried egg.”  He wouldn’t believe it and I was too proud to take the pan out and show him the bacon bones.

My Husband wouldn’t let me have a spot of cream, so I couldn’t make butter.  Our milk had to leave the farm with all its cream.  He didn’t believe in skimming the milk whereas most farmers used to take enough cream to make enough butter for their own use.  We only had the same ration as everyone else, you see.   One or two farmers who lived down on the moor, and lived out in the quieter part of Mendip, they used to send a cow to be killed, or some pigs to be killed, and wangle it, but where you were more thickly populated, you couldn’t do it.  Besides anything else, you had to keep records of how many animals you had on your farm and where they went.  You had to be careful.  We never had any meat off our farm no more than a rabbit.  That was the only thing we had off our farm – a rabbit.

There’s no doubt about it – it took the war to put the farmer back on his feet

Arran Farmer   There’s no doubt about it – it took the war to put the farmer back on his feet.  You had guaranteed prices for your produce.  Things began to change.  Farming became mechanised during the war.  The Executive Committee offices were here, on this farm.  (6)   Donald Brown, he was the Secretary.  It was Donald Brown who was the tenant of this place before I took over.

The farmers couldn’t afford to buy tractors and all the implements they needed.  They were only just getting on their feet after having thirty years in the doldrums.  If you wanted an implement you applied to the secretary and he hired to you whatever implement you wanted – ploughs – anything, even to a big travelling thrashing mill, which was a Godsend.  The big travelling threshing mill forced us all to do away with our old barn mills.

West Mayish had the oldest threshing mill in Arran – the first mill that ever came to Arran.  There’s bits of it lying there yet.  It originally came to Arran Estate.  It was taken from there up to the West Mayish and built in.  We threshed on it for years.  It was a murderous thing drawn by two horses.  It made a tremendous clattering noise.  You couldn’t hear a thing.  The two horses walked around and around, pulling a big beam around.  Many a miserable hour I’ve spent in rain, plodding around.  Twice a week during winter you’d have to thresh.  And it was sore on the horses because although they got used to it, going around,  it would chafe their legs – the chain would chafe their legs.  Nowadays it wouldn’t be tolerated.  The RSPCA would murder you.

If you want shortages, you’ll need to go back to the First World War.  In the Second World War we suffered no great shortages of anything, at any time.

His Sister  You could always get rabbits.

Arran Farmer  Butcher meat was difficult to get, but as Ellaline says, we got rabbits.  Arran hill rabbits were very, very good eating.  They still are.  Myxomatosis has frightened people away from eating a rabbit.  When a rabbit’s properly cooked it’s to be preferred to a chicken

His Sister  We churned butter. We weren’t supposed to, but we did.

The paramount element was not war production, it was how much you were going to pick up at the end of the week.  It was the money

Factory Worker  I was living with my parents in Dagenham and I went to work for Briggs.  I started down the River Plant on night work.  They had a contract for petrol cans, what they used in the desert – the big square ones.  They was also doing cars for other firms, like Jowetts.  They didn’t do Fords until Fords bought them out.  I’d never done bleeding night work in my life.  I’d been a tally clerk in the wharves down in Wapping, earning thirty bob a week.  I thought “I ain’t got to go all that way to work everyday, and I haven’t got to worry about the bombs and the fires”, that they were having there.

I soon got used to factory work.  There was no problems, even with night work.  The petrol can contract run out and we all got took on up the Main Plant.  When I got shoved up the Main Plant I got put in the wood mill (there’s no wood mill there now).  You’ve got to remember, a lot of cars and vans then had wood in them – wooden beams that went across lorries, and the flooring and the sides.  This was day work.  A weeks wages then, and I was doing ’round about 56 hours, was for someone of my age, three pound thirteen. Coming from Wapping where I’d been getting thirty bob I thought I was a millionaire.  I was getting more than my old man.  He was a cook and he was picking up three pound ten.  I knew it helped the old lady out because we had a big family and I was the oldest.

I would say at Briggs the paramount element was not war production, it was how much you were going to pick up at the end of the week.  It was the money.

In them days, how filthy you got at work was how you went home.  You worked right up to the minute.  You was glad to clock out and get away from the place.  I can remember going home and my Mother saying “Aye, aye, here comes the worker”, ‘cos I was in a hell of a state.  At Briggs you didn’t have canteens like we’ve got today.  We used to have tea barrows come ’round – we still have – but they was more predominant then.  You seemed to be more tied to your job than you are today.  Today, for instance, say you’re on shift work, you get half an hour for dinner.  And we get away ten minutes, fifteen minutes before the dinner break, going up to the canteen.  I can never recall that during the war.  Then, you was always waiting for the tea barrow.  There was no hot grub.  It was cake and rolls.  Anything hot you brought in yourself, like a flask of soup.

Because of war production we was working hell of long hours.  The time for knocking off was 5 o’ clock.  What they used to do – all of a sudden about 4 o’ clock they’d put a blackboard and easel (just like in a schoolroom) at the bottom of the wood mill, and they’d say “Knocking off time 6 o’ clock.”  Just like that.  If you wanted to go, you had to have a reason!  Then around about half past five they’d come out and scrub the “6 o’ clock” and put up “7 o’ clock.”  They’d then give you the facility to go ’round the cafe and have a cup of tea and a bun.  All this would be because they were behind with some order.  As I say, if it went over 6 o’ clock you were allowed quarter of an hour to go and get something to eat.

We were out in the shelters playing pitch and toss, or cards, or watching the old dogfights overhead.  It was lovely!  But then they stopped that, didn’t they

When the siren used to go we used to clock in of a morning at 8 o’ clock and straight out to the shelter.  We used to clock off to go home for dinner, come back, clock in on your way back and straight back to the shelter.  Five o’ clock – clock out and go home!  This went on for weeks.  Course, the company got their heads together.  “We can’t have this.  We’re getting no production.”  We were out in the shelters playing pitch and toss, or cards, or watching the old dogfights overhead.  It was lovely!  But then they stopped that, didn’t they.

They came up with the idea where they had lightbulbs all around the plant, painted red, and they had spotters on the roofs.  As soon as them spotters got a warning of imminent attack, these light bulbs used to go on and off.  So there you were, working with one eye on the job, and one eye on these lightbulbs, waiting for it to go so you could shoot out.  Soon as that light went on you shut your machine off and you was away.

We used to have women working in the wood mill then.  Everything being done in wood meant half of it was unseasoned.  It came from Malaya, Singapore, South America – all over the place. (7)  It used to stink terrible when you were cutting it.  The spray used to come off it.  It was then taken out the back to be dipped in green paint to preserve it.  One day there was a couple of women pushing a barrow-load of timber out into the dip to be dipped, and the lights started going on and off and the general foreman – he’s out of his office, down the stairs,  and as the girls are about to go through the door (they’re leaning, bent forward, pushing the barrow) he’s put one foot on their back and he jumps over the top of ’em, and flattens ’em, and he’s out the door.  And he’s the foremen!

They had a colossal number of women working down at Briggs.  There was one department where they was doing steel helmets.  They was all women.  In the press shop they still had women working up until about 1950, and they was working on the small presses.  There was no resentment of the women working at Briggs.  After the war – yes.

Part of the scrap we got were copper coils covered with silver – some mysterious bloody thing – and they were about two and a half to three inches in diameter.  They varied between that, and they were just right for ladies bracelets!

Conscientious Objector  Through the anarchists I got to know a chap who had a contract from some War Department because he had an idea for working on a frostbite machine – in other words, a machine for curing frostbite.  He had had some work before the war in some government research department.  He was a brilliant feller.  He persuaded them that he had a really brilliant idea for producing this frostbite machine.

Frostbite had knocked a hell of a lot of soldiers in the Norwegian campaign and this was something, rather late, the British realised they’d given no thought to.  He was funded in some modest way to set up a little workshop, and in order to get the equipment, which was very short, he had an arrangement with the airforce for sending him scrap from factories and crashed planes to this little workshop he had, right in the heart of Mayfair – Pitt’s Head Mews, in the shadow of where the Hilton now stands.

He got round him a team of about six to ten (it varied a bit) conscientious objectors, one or two people had been excused military service, a couple of chaps who were on the run and at least one deserter from the army.  We were working in this little place.  Every month a lorry would come, loaded with all these sacks of scrap and they’d all get turned out in the basement.  Upstairs we had what was the beginning of the laboratory – which was built and never finished!  But what we did have was a whole little series of tables and a little manufacturing process was going in.

Part of the scrap we got were copper coils covered with silver – some mysterious bloody thing – and they were about two and a half to three inches in diameter.  They varied a bit between that, and they were just right for ladies bracelets!  We were snipping these things off in two or three curls, slightly bending the end in, polishing them all up (they came covered in grease, crap and dirt).  We got some other tiny spring things which we dipped in enamel and stuck on the end and there we were: tatty little Utility type bracelets which were absolutely impossible to get!

One of the guys who was a smooth talker used to go off all ’round the country getting orders, selling to Bentall’s of Kingston, John Lewis stores, Selfridge’s – all over the country.  The stores were falling over themselves to buy these little things.  We couldn’t make enough of them!  There was a whole team of us making a living out of this scrap.  No questions were asked, as it was coming from official sources.  After all, he was working on this frostbite machine!  The heat was off, as far as he was concerned.  The fighting was going on in the desert rather than Norway.

It was at this time that I was asked – the only time in the war – for my identity card.  We were sitting in a cafe in Camden Town when the police came in and checked everyone’s identity.  A policeman asked for my identity card and asked me what I did for a living.  I said “I’m afraid I can’t divulge that.  Government job.”  “Oh” he says, “very good sir.”

When Anita and her sister lived in a hostel in 1944 and the manageress got up and said “All the virgins in this hostel I can get in a telephone booth”, I instantly thought of my two cousins

Anita  And I’ve regretted it ever since!

London Boy  The hostel was run by a government department.  It was specially built for indistrial workers.  We came from all over Britain.

Anita  We had a good time, didn’t we?

London Boy  I had a marvellous time.  This was in Coventry.

Anita  We were all there.

London Boy  Your brother went first.  I volunteered.  I was only 15.  The only way I could earn money was to go there.  Plenty of work in London, but fifteen bob a week.  When I went there my money went up to £5 a week.  By 17 I was earning £10.  Mind, you paid a lot of tax.  It was the money.  I went there because of that, I’ll be honest.  Our factory was the most modern in Europe.  It was built in 1940.  It was Standard. (8).  It was what they called a shadow factory.  They made aero engines there and Standard run it.  Compared with what I’d worked in in London it was smashing.  In fact the factory then, in 1941, the machinery was better there than what I’m working with now.  That’s no exaggeration.  And the conditions were better than what I’m working under now.

Anita  I had a cushy job.  I was an Inspector.  I always had to wait until the section had completed their work before I could inspect it, so I used to go off and see my sister in the machine room.  We used to have a talk and a little flirt with the boys.  I had a rip-roaring time.  Life at home was restricting.  There was a lot of domestic responsibilities, because we had a big family.  It was our freedom, as youngsters, to get away from home.

London Boy  It was like a big holiday camp, except you had to work.  Coming from homes with no baths and hot water it was a luxury for many.  You were living in dormitories.  At the end of each dormitory of each block you had a little writing room, and then there was the main block where you had dances and the canteen and where they showed pictures.

Anita  The community living was very nice and you didn’t have domestic responsibilities.  And the boys!  There were hundreds of boys!  It was lovely.

London Boy  In the hostel there were about six hundred women and four hundred blokes.  There had  been about sixty-one women had to leave because they had been made pregnant, and it had only been open a year and a half.

Anita  I had a smashing time.  I did.  That was the best time of my life.  Yes, the war ending was a big disappointment.

1.   In 1944 the Government announced the average weekly manual wage in Britain stood at six pounds and ten shillings.  This figure was above what many coalface miners were earning. Many miners reacted by voting to go on strike, particularly in South Wales and Yorkshire.    The Government as a result set a minimum wage for miners, which was at the time the highest minimum wage in Britain, although their overall earnings were still below many of those working in munitions and aircraft production.

2.   Named after the Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour, those male conscripts selected on a random basis deeply disliked being forced into the coal mines in an attempt to boost flagging coal production.  The scheme continued until 1948 and in terms of boosting coal production was unsuccessful.

3.  Frank Foulkes, who after the war was expelled from the ETU, with others, for interfering with postal ballot returns to secure the election of a Communist General Secretary;  ‘Commie-Nazis’ due to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August, 1939.

4.  Essential Work Order (EWO).  Introduced to maintain manpower and production in war industries, from mines to shipbuilding.  The employer in a designated EWO could not sack a worker without permission of the Ministry of Labour.  Conversely, a worker could not leave their job without permission.

5.  This presumably was after the Liverpool May Blitz.  During that blitz the steamer Malakand was berthed in Huskisson Dock, Liverpool, and its cargo of 1,000 tons of high explosives blew up.

6. Mid Mayish, Brodick, Isle of Arran.

7. The capture of Singapore and Malaya by Japanese forces in 1942 was a significant economic blow to the UK.  Timber, tin and rubber were no longer available from these colonies.

8.  Standard Motor Car Company.

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13. Women at War

The first time I came home I had me great big haversack, me gas mask and me tin helmet and me Mum looked at me and said “Ooh Rene, whatever have they done to yer?”

East London Teenager   All women under 40 had to do some sort of war work. (1)  We all had to fill a form in – how old we was, whether we wanted to work in munitions, or whatever, or whether we wanted to go in the airforce, or in the Land Army, and so on.  I just put down the airforce.  I didn’t think nothing was going to come of the war, and then it happened – I got called up.  This was when I was working at Rutland in the picture house.

I joined the Land Army to try and get out of it, the airforce.  The uniform in the Land Army was a pair of big socks, riding breeches and a sort of fawn overcoat and cowboy hat, and a green wooly.  I was going to drive this horse and milk cart.  I was frightened of the bleeding horse.  I was shit scared, but I was going to have a go.  I’d rather do that then get called up.  I told them “I can’t go in the airforce now, I’ve joined the Land Army.”  But they said “You’ll have to take your Land Army clothes back.  You’ve got to go in the airforce.”  I was called up two days before Christmas.  I had to go to Gloucestor, and then I went to Morecambe for me training.  We used to march along the front in the wind.

rene ed_edited-1

I’ll never forget the first time I came home.  I had thick grey stockings on, and your heavy shoes and your hat – you don’t know how to do nothing, press your uniform, or nothing.  You’re a sort of sprog, in’t yer?  I had me great big haversack with me gas mask and me tin helmet on me back and me Mum looked at me and said “Ooh Rene, whatever have they done to yer?”

London Clippie  If you weren’t married (I was doing machining – needlework) – and if it wasn’t considered essential you had to go away to work in ammunitions, or something like that.  I didn’t want to go in ammunitions because I didn’t want to go away, which is often what you had to do.  So I went on the buses as a conductoress. I was financially better off going on the buses.  The Rag Trade never was good pay, although I’d been apprenticed to it, and worked in it until then.  When you went on the buses you got a man’s wage.  And you got a free uniform and a pass.

I was in the first ladies that went on the buses.  It was 1940.  There were women conductors but not one woman driver. (2)  The younger men on the buses had been taken for the services.  We were only replacing them.  The drivers were usually older men.

We had a very stringent medical tests before they would allow us in.  I was in Forest Gate, at the Green Street garage.  We had a week out with the conductor, and then we were left to our own mercies.  I did the 25 route which was Becontree Heath to Victoria, through Oxford Street, Bond Street.  I also did the 40 route which was from Wanstead round to Camberwell Green.  We used to get well known people on the buses a lot, especially ’round Bond Street and Piccadilly.  The reason was that they couldn’t get the petrol to run their cars.

I enjoyed the comradeship – being on the same route every day you met the same people and you got to know them.  You got some people who were awkward, like you always get. The day after we got the telegram about Dick, my brother, being killed, someone on the bus said to me “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”  I thought “I could tell you I know there’s a war on.”  But the majority, there was a wonderful comradeship.

We got caught in the raids a lot.  I was on the 25 route when the Bank (3) was being bombed and when St Paul’s went.  It was nothing for people to come on your bus with a roll of lino.  You’d ask them if they were bringing the piano next – probably all they’d got left of their home.  One time, coming down from Aldgate, someone got on the bus and said “I wish you’d hurry up.”  I said “What’s the trouble?”  “There’s a bomb fallen, at Odessa Road”.  That’s where my family lived!  You can imagine how I felt.  When the bus got to the top of Norwich Road I said to all the passengers on the bus “Do you think you can all see yourselves off?”  “Yes”, they said, and I said to my driver “I’m going home”.  “Alright”, he said, “give us the money”, and he took the money, and I got off at Norwich Road and ran like mad, but it was on the corner of Wellington Road that had got it, the pre-fab pub had gone, not Odessa Road – but we did got bombed another time, and I almost got killed.

During a raid my driver and I had a system, ‘cos he liked to get home to his family, and I liked to get home.  The thing was that during a raid, if you stopped your bus, you had to stay there, so you couldn’t get home.  But if you could do your journey, which was your quota for the day, and get back to the depot and pay your money in, you could get home.  So my driver and I never took shelter.  We used to carry on right through it.  I would go upstairs in the bus and if I banged loud with one foot it meant that they were in front of us, and he had to slow down a bit as I could see the flak.  But if I banged twice, he’d got to get a move on because I could see it was behind us.

One time we was belting like mad along the Whitechapel Road – we had a few passengers on board – and a police car came along – Clang! Clang! Clang!.  He pulled us up at the side of the road.  The copper says to Jack and I “I like your guts, you two, but if anybody was to run out into the road they wouldn’t stand an earthly.”

They had bus inspectors during the war and they was as stringent as anything, but as I say, the comradeship on the buses was wonderful during the war, but not after, we was taking the men’s jobs.  It changed.  I left in 1947.  I was getting married.

Winscombe, Somerset Teenager  I took what was called “School Certificate”, and I got 8 credits.  It was then a question of what I was going to do.  There was an advertisement in the paper wanting girls to do radio location in the ATS.  That was radar – radar location.  My parents thought that would be quite a good career for me.  I went to Axbridge to volunteer.  My Mother came with me.  It got me away from the village.  The war gave a lot of women opportunities they’d never had before – to join up and get away from service. For instance, when I went to Honiton for my training another woman came with me who had joined up at the same time.  She had been a parlour maid in a doctor’s house.  She was ten years older than me.  I was seventeen and a half.  I was at the minimum age.

My first night in the ATS was at Honiton, Devon.  It was October.  I remember the beautiful beech trees.  I was terribly cold because I wasn’t experienced with putting our blankets out and making our beds.  But I wasn’t a bit homesick.  At Honiton they gave me aptitude tests and instead of radio location I was put into height finding and plotting, for guns.   I had my medical at Taunton.  It was all square bashing at Honition.  I enjoyed drilling.  Because I was tall I used to be one of the markers.  I enjoyed marching, and we had a band.  It was lovely.  I enjoyed that part of it.  Then we were sent to Reading, to Arborfield and then up to Scotland, to Wigtownshire.  On the coast.  Really remote.  We were under canvas.  It was a firing range.  That wasn’t very nice, actually.

Her Younger Sister  I left school at 14 and I started work in my parent’s shop – it was a newsagents and stationers.  I hated it.  I wanted to stay on at school.   In fact,  I went and took an exam but I didn’t pass it, and because the war had started, the school said they couldn’t be bothered with someone who was a bit behind.  So they wouldn’t let me stay on.   I was very bitter and twisted about that because I didn’t want to go in the shop.  So then I just longed to to go into the services.  I thought how lucky my sister was, to go into the ATS.  Mind you, I don’t think some of them had a very good time of it.  But at that age – 14, you imagine yourself at 14 – the thought of it seemed exciting. And then in 1944 I was called up just after my Father died.  I saw it as my chance to leave the shop.  My Father had died three days after D Day.  I was so thrilled when I was called up because my Father had promised that when I was 18 I could go.  Because Enid had gone in at seventeen and a half you had to have parent’s consent, but because of my Father’s death, they deferred me.  But I didn’t want to be deferred.  I wanted to be a despatch rider on a motorbike!  That’s all I dreamt about!

A lot of women were able to get out of war work by pretending they were ill

London Girl  I’d been evacuated but I came home and started work at 15.  I went into various office jobs.  In one I was very unhappy and I had to fight them to get out of it.  You couldn’t just leave your job like that.  You had to go before a Tribunal.  You had to have a very good reason for leaving your job.  In this particular office the boss was a horrible swine.  I managed to win the case.  The next job I went to I wanted to get out of, so I pretended I had TB.  My sister phoned up.  I think a lot of women were able to get out of war work by pretending they were ill.  Getting a doctor’s note.  There was a certain amount of strictness, though.  My sister had impetigo – impetigo was rampant during the war.  She had to come home, and the police came knocking because she had exceeded her time, her doctor’s certificate.

Liverpool Teenager  I worked at Littlewoods.  We were making what we called sleeves – wind sleeves for aerodromes.  There was hundreds of sewing machines going.  You couldn’t hear nothing.  The hours were staggered.  You’d do four nights on, two nights off, four nights on.  Sometimes you got two wage packets in the one week.  That was smashing when it fell like that.  But after a while I couldn’t stick it any longer.  When I wanted to leave Littlewoods I had to go before a Tribunal.  The Tribunal was in Lece Street.  I was frightened about going before them.  The thought of facing them made me ill.  There was a couple of women and a few men behind a big table.  I was on me own.  Nobody else was allowed in.  I was shaking – more with fright than sickness.

I told them I couldn’t stick it, that I wasn’t well.  They said “We don’t think you could stick any work.”  But I was really ill, with lack of sleep and food was horrible to get.  They said under the circumstances I was only fit for light work.  Ooh, was I glad!  I run down them steps.

I went to work for Rootes, in their aircraft factory.  I think they were making De Havilland Mosquitos.  To be quite truthful, I don’t remember doing anything there.  The hardest job I had was hiding away from the bosses.  I was paid for nothing.  I can picture to this day sitting under one of these aeroplanes.  I didn’t care if they gave me the sack, but they wouldn’t let me go.  I didn’t want the job.  In the end they said the job was too heavy!  A friend of mine worked on the railway, and that was what I was after.  We were on about £5 or £6 at Rootes and I went onto twenty-four bob!  It was no cop job, but you had a good laff.

We emptied all the fruit trains.  Well, you never went short.  The things that went on, it was laughable

I got up at 4 o’ clock in the morning.  There were no buses.  I walked.  I lived in Lodge Lane.  That was about two and a half miles every morning.  I was at Liverpool Central.  They were strict about time-keeping, but if you were late you could always dodge in.  It wasn’t like it is now – then, jobs were ten a penny, and where would you get anyone to get up at four in the morning for twenty four bob?  The foreman was always standing there when you came in.  You had to clock in.  He used to stutter and before he could get what he was going to tell you, to tell us off, we’d be half way down the platform.

I remember falling asleep standing up one day, on the railway.  I was on parcels.  The man would be throwing parcels to me, and you had to put them in a different department in the container for the different towns.  I could hear someone shouting these names out and all of a sudden someone was shouting “Dizzy!”, and that was me!  They used to call me Dizzy.  I was asleep standing up!

We used to empty all the fruit trains, first thing.  Well, you never went short.  The things that went on, it was laughable.  There was one women worked with us – Janie – she was deaf.  In the summer maybe strawberries came in.  We couldn’t afford strawberries – in fact you couldn’t get them.  Or tomatoes would come in, and they were so dear.  The foreman in charge of the women used to watch us – in fact, he could search us if he wanted to.  But Janie was cute.  We all used to take our coats to work, but she used to carry hers around with her.  We weren’t allowed to have pockets, but she used to tie a piece of string ’round the sleeves of her coat and she’d stuff them with all kinds – tomatoes – oh, everything.  She’d throw her coat over her arm and carry them out.

There was one time she put tomatoes down her chest.  She didn’t have her coat with her.  And the railway policeman, Bill Hughes, he wasn’t a bad feller, he had his job to do, he went over to her and put his arms around her waist and worked up to her chest and he squeezed her!   He came up to us afterwards and said he knew she had tomatoes.  He said “It was the only way I could get my own back.”

There was never any fear of me going into the forces as working on the railway was considered essential work.  I wouldn’t have gone in the forces – I’d have emigrated to Ireland before I’d have gone in.  And I wouldn’t have gone on them munitions.  The danger of it.

The yellow stuff was dangerous.  There was a few explosions.  Not very big ones.  It was when they were filling shells, sometimes they blew up

Lancashire Woman  I volunteered for the ROF at Chorley  (3).  I volunteered to get some money.  It was about the middle of the war.  It was after I came to live in Leyland.  I got friendly with some girls that worked there and I went along for a job.  They had two sets of people.  One what they called ROF, and the other was CIA.  That was inspecting the shells and detonators.  I was in the CIA.

We didn’t have no training, except somebody said “You do this” and that was it.  You were left to it, on your own.  I was on some detonators that were all yeller.  They were little things. The ROF filled these detonators, and they went into a box and you had to check ’em.  You had to see they was level on the top and smooth and if they weren’t you had to reject them.  The yeller stuff was dangerous.  It made them all yeller.  A lot of people, you could tell where they worked – they just looked like Chinese.  Yeller faces.  It’s like a sulphur looking colour, this powder.  There was a few explosions.  Not very big ones.  It was when they were filling these shells, sometimes they blew up.  I don’t think anybody got killed while I was there.  I was there twelve months.

They did have accidents but people didn’t bother about the danger.  You were going to work and earning some money.  It was pretty clean in general.  They give you overalls and when you go in you’re to take everything off – all your outdoor clothes, shoes.  I think it was because you weren’t to take dirt in.  They used to have a clean side and a dirty side.  You’d take your things off at that side and put them all there and then you’d stand over a barrier and they’d put all your working clothes on there.

They did nights.  It was more money on nights.  About £12 I got for nights.  We used to think it was a lot of money to have £12!  On nights they used to say there was a lot of carrying on with blokes, with girls.  There was a lot of carrying on at Exton.  They’d say “Oh, you work at Exton?” and give you the eye.  A lot of men and women worked there because of the money.  People travelled from everywhere to work there – Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester.  There were special buses for some people.  We used to have to fly for these buses to catch them at night, going home.  There used to be thousands going out at night.  They used to search us.  Pick odd ones out and search them.

You had to clock in when you went in.  There were thousands of cards.  You got peoplke clocking other people in.  And they used to pick you out and search you when you were going in, to see if you’d got anything in your bag.  You couldn’t take cigarettes or matches in.  You weren’t supposed to.  But they used to.  They wangled it some way.  The place was in sections and you had to know which was yours.  When you got inside the factory you had to walk to your section, and sometimes it was a long way.  Perhaps a couple of miles. It was a really big place.

On another section, on another side, it was all danger.  They got more money on that side.  I worked there a bit.  Somebody would say to you “You’re on that section today.”  It was doing the same work, but it was more dangerous powder.  It was black.  You were in little rooms and there were machines all around and stools.  They used to fill the detonators with this black stuff, and if it was too full they used to rub it down a bit.  They weren’t supposed to, ‘cos that’s dangerous, rubbing that.  There was a lot of stuff wasted, not done right.  The folk weren’t bothered.  There used to be tension sometimes.  These ROF didn’t like CIA’s.  Know what I mean?  They were rejecting their work all the time.

There was a dark girl working there, a coloured girl.  She was funny.  We used to have some fun with her!  When we were on nights she never used to work.  She was asleep over a machine all the time.  She did used to swear as well!  We all used to sing together.  They had a canteen and they used to have like Worker’s Playtime people there.  They had a big urn where you took your pint cup and brewed yourself some tea.

I left before the war ended.   I can’t remember why I left, unless it was home duties. Looking after a kid. You can’t do it the same on nights, can you?  I wasn’t working before the war.  I never went out to work.  That was the first time I was working.  It was a bit strange, to go out to work and to go into a factory.  You do feel as if you’ve earnt a bit of something.  You don’t feel so dependent for your money.  I bought a new carpet while I was earning that money.

I joined the Land Army to get away from home life.  The opportunity was there so I took it

Yorkshire Girl   My Dad played hell with me – he’s dead and gone now – but I went in service and I had no life at all.  He took every bloody penny off me I earned.  I was more or less grafting for nothing.  He used to say to this here lady where I was in service (this was in Thornton, Yorkshire) – he used to say “Take so much out for her clothes, and that’s it.” No pocket money.  What good was that?  Having to go to Church with these flaming high society people.  Every other Sunday I got off, and you either had all morning off and go to Church in the evening, or we had morning Church service and the evening off.  Bloody hell.  We grafted there for what?  Nothing.  Not much bloody fun it was – black leading grates and one thing and another.  It was living in there.  And then he got me a job in a pub, right on top, and he got my bike and used it, and I had to bus it.  And when he came in pub and had a few drinks he carried on.

I was so scared of going home and getting a belting I used to have a spare key for me Dad’s allotment and I’ve slept in there with the chickens, on the haystack – anywhere, till I found out he’d gone out.  One morning I thought he’d gone out and I crawled through the pantry window.  Oh didn’t he leather me.  He wouldn’t just leather you, he’d tie you to a damn post and leather you.  So I got my name down for Land Army, and that was it.  I was away.

I worked near our kid where she was ATSing at Seaton. (4)   To look at you, you looked like bloody scouts.  You had one of these flaming big hats on and breaches and boots.  I’d helped my Dad on his allotments but I’d never done farm work before.  They had cattle and pigs.  We did a bit of all sorts.  I had to feed the chickens.  I was in digs, in nissen huts.  The girls were from all over.

I thought the countryside was the idyllic scene.  I painted pretty little farmyards.  They used to get stuck up on the walls in the art room

Glasgow Teenager  I decided to join the Land Army and thereupon my dream was utterly shattered.  I went to their recruiting office, which if I remember rightly was in Hope Street.  I’d been working as a tracer in a draughtsman’s office and I saw this as my chance to get away.

The Land Army sent me to the ———– at Dumbarton, about two miles from where I lived.  They had an accredited herd.  It was a beautifully run herd.  But do you know why they engaged me?  His wife was expecting a second child and they wanted me to cook, scrub the floor and do everything.  She had a nurse who had been her childhood nurse, whom she’d had for the first child, and she was going to have her for the second child.  This nurse was an old harridan.  She expected all her orders to be carried out.  I beefed.  I told them I wasn’t going to do it.  I’d signed on for three years of agricultural work and I was shoved into the farm as a domestic.  I got the boat from there. I was sent to ———, which was a hand-milking farm.

It was difficult because there again they couldn’t understand that I didn’t want to do domestic work.  I wanted to learn about work on a farm.  Another girl working there was luckier than me.  She was a great big girl and she made a boyfriend of the First Ploughman, and that was one up for her because she learnt a lot from this wee guy.  It was the strangest business – this huge big girl and this tiny wee ploughman.  She used to sit him on her knee, and look after him like a baby.  She learnt a lot because of this wee guy.  She learnt more than I did.

She learnt milking.  By the time I had gone into a byre and made several cows dry I had got the message that there was no point in me remaining in that part of the Land Army.  I used to get the job of herding the cows up to the big park, at the back of the estate.  There were two two gates.  One led to the estate and the huge house, and the other led to the cows park at the back.  The cows always knew which way to go.  The two gates were always open and they rarely took the wrong road.  But when they were with me they kicked their hind legs up and the tails went waving up and they all went skipping through the wrong gate, up to the big house.

I also had to look after the farmer’s wife’s daughter.  I had all the baby-sitting for this bleeding child, greeting all the time.  I was living in at the farm.  It was rough.  They had all the chickens in the kitchen, practically.  A lot of the farms were employing bodachs.  And there was one bodach at ——– called Jimmy.  He was in love with a tattie howker called Nora.  She came from Maryhill.  In a way it wasn’t too bad.  Ma —– would look after that guy.  He was banned to a wee cubbyhole at the back, but Jimmy didnae mind that.  They’ve got a great conceit of  themselves, these blokes who aren’t the full shilling.  As far as he was concerned he was as good as Wattie —–, the farmer.  And yet he was quite prepared to accept no wage, because as far as I know he didnae get any.  He got his grub and he was given an old bike with an old dynamo, and he thought of this dynamo morning, noon and night.  And his pipe I can see him yet – with his pipe.  Ma ——- would sometimes darn his socks for him.  Wattie ——- was horrible to him.  Apart from that, they had a government tractor man that used to come and do the ploughing.

I said I didnae want to hoe and that was the end of the matter.  He said “Right, you’re dishonourably discharged”

I complained to the Land Army people.  They knew what was happening.  They were sending girls to domestic work, but they didn’t expect to complain about it – it was wartime.  I wanted to market garden.  I said to them “Look, I’m going to leave unless I get some market garden gardening.”  They said “Alright, you can go to MacBrayne’s.”  This was a big fruit farm.  MacBrayne agreed to take me but he warned me that it would be nothing but hoeing.  And it was.  I couldn’t bear it and I had to pack it in.  I went to the Land Army office, and boy, did I catch it!   I wasn’t loyal – I signed a contract – I should keep my word – Blah, blah, blah!  I said I didnae want to hoe and that was the end of the matter.  He said “Right, you’re dishonourably discharged.”  I went back to the same draughtman’s office.

In your contract with the Land Army it said you were supposed to learn something about the land, but they never taught you anything.  You were cheap labour.  Often my money was short, but who could you complain to?  I never even got my uniform.  I was dying to wear it.  All I got was a pair of dungarees and gumboots.

Where I lived there was far more resentment about Land Army girls than ever there was about evacuees

Somerset Levels Girl   Like the evacuees, they were accused of bringing lice to the village.  They were considered tarty.  I’ve got two brothers and I can hear my Mother now.  I was a lot younger than my brothers.  They were in their late teens.  My Mother used to do my hair because it was very long and in platts.  Whilst she did it she used to take her vengeance out on these Land Army girls as she platted it – really pulling my hair.  “Bloody Land Army girls.”  Tug, tug.  “I told —– and —– to keep away from them.”  Both brothers got girls pregnant.  She was really tugging my hair.

The Land Army girls were down at Steanbow (5), which is still a farm. It was a great motorbike age and after work they used to fly down there on their motorbikes and go to Wells pictures and all over the place.  Whereas before they had a selection of village girls which was very limited, they now had a vast harem of girls from as far away as Newcastle, which was a foreign land to them.  Because at that time there wasn’t the pill and what have you, you automatically married them.

Somerset Farmer  The first Land Army girl we had, she was a lovely girl in every way, but she was absolutely hopeless when it came to working on a farm.  She came from London.  She came down to Steanbow Training Farm because she was afraid she would have to go to Manchester and for some reason all these Land Army girls had a horror of going to Manchester. (6)  

This girl’s parents was not very practical because the girl didn’t know the way to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea, or to boil an egg.  She couldn’t fry a rasher of bacon – she didn’t know the way to do anything.

We were married, my husband and I, the beginning of 1940.  We had a local boy, to start off with, but he decided to join up.  He wanted to get married, and if he got married, and if he got married his wife got an allowance – a separation allowance, and she could save that until such times as he came out of the war.  So then we had the Land Army girl.  She was eighteen or nineteen.  She was hopeless.  She couldn’t tie a cow up.  She was afraid.  In the cow stall you had chains.  You had to take a chain off a nail, you put your arm underneath her neck and slip it through to tie it.  She wouldn’t do that.  She was afraid the cow was going to swing her head and hit her with its horns.  She was afraid to sit under a cow and milk it.  She was terrified she was going to get kicked, though you put a span on its’ legs so it couldn’t kick very well.  If a cow did move she’d run and fling her arms all around my  husband’s neck.  “Mr Boyce!  Mr Boyce!  Help me!  Save me!  Save me!”  Absolutely terrified.  No good at anything.  You couldn’t send her out with a horse to chain-harrow a field.  She couldn’t do anything so we notified Steanbow and they had her back and we had a second Land Army girl.

She came from Greenwich.  She had the same tale – she joined the Land Army because she didn’t want to go to Manchester.  She was a good girl for farm work.  She took to it.  She could do milking, though she didn’t like a kicking cow.  If my husband was busy mowing and I had to take his part in the cow stall, any cow that was difficult to milk, or any cow like a heifer that hadn’t been broken in, or you were breaking in, that was my lot to milk. But even so, she was a good girl.  You could send her out with the horse.  With the Land Army girls you had to pay them a regulation wage, and there was an amount fixed how much you could deduct for board and how much you had to pay for overtime.

1.  Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) was the first country to conscript women into the services and key wartime industries when the National Service (N0 2) Act became law, 18 December, 1941.  By July 1943 the Act was extended to cover all women between the ages of 19 and up to 51.

2.   It was not until 1974 that London Transport allowed women to drive a bus.  This despite that women drove military and ambulance vehicles during the war, and flew planes.

3.  Royal Ordnance Factory.

4.  Devon.

5.  Pilton, near Shepton Mallet.

6.  Metropolitan Vickers (Spitfires) and A.V.Roe (Lancasters) were engaged on aircraft  production in the Manchester area.  One reason for extending the age of conscripted women up to 51 was to release younger women for aircraft production, where there was a chronic shortage of workers.  The Royal Ordnance Factory at Chorley was also 19 miles from Manchester.

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12 The Conscientious Objectors

My Mother simply said to me “I didn’t give birth to you to have you killed at the age of 23 so good luck to you”

Commercial Artist  I was 23 when the war broke out.  I was a ripe age for it.  I was extraordinarily lucky because I had a whole set of lucky circumstances which led me to take my position against the war.  It went back before the war.

I had an ordinary kind of education at an elementary school and secondary school in Forest Gate, London.  I then went onto art school at the West Ham Tech’ and it  was there that my education in thinking began to develop.  There wasn’t much political thought going on but we began to think about Life, with a capital ‘L’, and getting into all that sort of thing.  There was a young feller there who was, in fact, black and he was the only black boy in the school.  He got very interested in politics and became a pacifist.  In fact, he took me along to a meeting of the old ILP, which I remember rightly was in Poplar Town Hall, where I heard Jimmy Maxton speak. This feller started me thinking, and started us all discussing pacifism.  We had a little group of four who were very close friends.  We used to go everywhere together, do everything together.

At the time of the Munich crisis I was thinking “Oh God, I should get into the Home Guard”  or do something – prepare myself for what was obviously coming. (1)   In the intervening year, by the time war broke out, three of the four of us had become conscientious objectors.  We all split up in different directions and my lucky chance grew out of the fact that in June 1939 I’d gone for a holiday in the country – down in Sussex – and had fallen in love with a farmer’s daughter.  Fortunately, she reciprocated and so when it all happened in September ’39 she said ” Come down here.”   She had a caravan ready for me to go to, so I went and lived down on the farm.  I lost my job.  I was sacked a week before the war broke out.

I was working in the studio of a printers in Chiswell Street, just off Finsbury Square.  I had left school ’36.  Our little group had carried on after we’d left school.  I had ambitions to be a painter and I had asked for an extra week’s or fortnight’s holiday from my firm to do this – unpaid, of course.  It had to be, in those days.  The boss said “No.  If you want it, other people will want it.”   When the war broke out however, a week before, he called me in: “Well, Sansom, you can go and do your painting now.  We don’t need you any more.”   Piss off!  And that was that.  I was on the dole.

I just switched my place of residence down to this farm, which was at Cowden, near Edenbridge.  My parents were, I think, a little shocked that I had decided to be a conscientious objector.  My Father had just been too old for the First World War.  He may have swung the lead a bit – I don’t know.  He was self-employed and I think he just about kept himself out of it by virtue of having his little wood-working business to keep going.  So he had no great feelings about that.  My Mother simply said to me “I didn’t give birth to you to have you killed at the age of 23 so good luck to you.”  In the event, later on, she turned out to be quite a support in that sort of way.

I started doing odd jobs for the farmer and got into farm work, whilst still drawing unemployment pay.  It was very nice.  I just had to cycle into edenbridge one day a week and they posted my 17/- a week to me and I was able to live on that, living cheaply in this caravan.  The time came when I felt I had to make a move.  I saw an advertisement for training tractor drivers in the Kent War Agricultural Committee Committee. (2)   I went over to Maidstone and did a fortnight’s course in tractor driving and after that I was able to be offered jobs as a skilled agricultural worker.

By this time my age group had come up and I had registered as a conscientious objector.  I went and lived on two or three farms out in Kent, in the Sheppey area, driving tractors.  I became, I think I can say, a skilled tractor driver.  They actually trusted me with one of the first yellow Caterpillars in the country, when they began to come over on Lend-Lease from America. (3)    I was very proudly going up and down with a four furrow plough, harrowing and cultivating and doing all that bit.

Farms in those days had a lot of people working on them, not like now where you can get hundreds and hundreds of acres run by six men with machines.  They still had horses. My big tractor was the first one to be introduced.  The guy who got it eventually became Sheriff of Kent.  Man called Doubleday.  He got a knighthood for his services of ploughing up hundreds of acres of marshland, getting £2 an acre subsidy, just for getting me to work on it for him.

There were a lot of people working on the farm.  There were about twenty men lining up at ten past six in the morning.  They were exempted.  Most of them would have been of military age.  I’m sure there were quite a few of them who were bloody glad they were exempted.  There was no patriotic talk.

In the meantime I had been called up for the Tribunal.  I was turned down.  I had no history of having belonged to either a religious body or political group which had a recognised position that they could accept.  My objection was based on my wishy-washy humanitarian, pacifist, aesthetic objections.  An ‘artist’, you know – can’t have anything to do with this.  That didn’t go down very well with the Tribunal!  I was turned down also at the Appeal.  The Labour Exchange then approached me and they said “We understand this is your position – would you be prepared to go in the Fire Service?”  I thought around that for a couple of days and said “Yes, OK, I will accept the Fire Service.”

The Blitz had come and gone and there just wasn’t the demand for firemen anymore.  I was never called up

I submitted myself for a medical examination which, if you’re going in the forces, is the crucial thing you must never do.  Once you’ve been through a medical they reckon they’ve got you.  I went through the medical on the strictest understanding (I signed a thing) that it was for the Fire Service, and stood back, expecting to be called up.  By this time it was 1941.  The Blitz had come and gone and there just wasn’t the demand for fireman any more.  I was never called up.

Whilst I had been on the land I had had a very interesting set of experiences simply by being a useful worker and being highly thought of by the farmers who had never really thought of me as a ‘Conchie’.  In fact there was one point where I had to disclose it.  I think it was when I had to go for this medical.  I said to the foreman “You know I’m a conchie, so I’ve got to go and do this for the Fire Service.”  He was surprised.  “No”, he said, “I didn’t know”, and I think his attitude changed towards me a little bit then.  I kept my beliefs to myself.  It usually never arose.  I’d got married in the meantime, though not to the farmer’s daughter.  My wife’s family knew.  The brother-in-law was a bit hostile.  He wasn’t in the army, but he was in the Home Guard and was as patriotic as all people are who are not doing very much.  My brother was very hostile too, until he got called up.  He flirted with the British Union of Fascists before the war and was a bit patriotic.  He was very ashamed of me in the first instance.

He was a lot older than me and he’d worked in an insurance office all his life, going to and from Rickmansworth, where he lived, to the City of London.  He was called up and drafted first to Kettering where he had a hell of a time.  He told me afterwards he very nearly deserted because it was so rough.  He managed to get himself in the Pay Corps and lived at home, going from Rickmansworth to the City an hour earlier than the one he used to get up to the office before.

After I got married we got fed up where we were and we moved back to London and I got a job as a gardener/handyman.  An old friend of mine had been off to Scotland, on the Forestry.  Up there there was much more of a group of conchies working together.  They had a lot more discussion and the whole thing was getting politicised.  He’d got onto Herbert Read’s writing which was a contact between us art students and radical ideas. (4)    He introduced me to Poetry and Anarchism and then the Philosophy of Anarchism.  These both turned me on.  And from there I just made the trek up to Belsize Road, which was where the Freedom Press office was in those days, and introduced myself and started going to their meetings.  That was 1943.  It was three and a half years of the war before I worked around from wishy-washy, simple personal opposition to the war to sewing all these things together, in terms of what I now see as the pointlessness of objecting to war without objecting to the state which depends upon war.

I was in Ipswich casual ward the day war broke out.  I sensed that this was an end of an era, that the whole thing was coming to an end

Tramp  Most of the casual wards were closed down because they were wanted to be used either as additional hospital accommodation  or as ARP centres.  I suppose, also, the authorities thought there would be no longer any need to provide accommodation for dossers, but all through the war years there were still people on the road – not so many, but certainly a certain number.

I went back to London and I went to live at a place called the Hostel at 57 Mount Pleasant.  It was a hostel run by the London County Council to get men off the road and to help them try and get jobs.  I stayed there a couple of months, but the situation didn’t improve, and I went off on the road again for a short while with a couple of chaps and ended up in Stoke on Trent, where I got a job in a hotel.  It was the Grand Hotel, Hanley.  It was then that I wrote to the ILP and asked them to send me two copies of their weekly paper each week, and wrote to Peace News and asked them to send me two copies of Peace News every week.  I had decided to be a conscientious objector.

In 1939 when I should have registered for military service I didn’t go.  I’d made up my mind I wasn’t going to register and that I was going to go to prison, but people in the movement talked to me about this and said it was rather silly going to prison – you can’t achieve anything in jail.  So several months after I should have registered I came to the conclusion they were right – that you could do much more useful work outside prison than inside, so long as the country allowed you to do anti-war activity.  I have a great respect for those conscientious objectors who did go to prison though.  They stood their ground, the absolutists, and I think they were very wonderful and very brave people.

They used to bring them in, put ’em in a cell, strip them naked, throw a uniform in, and that’s it.  You put it on or you don’t, and in the middle of winter, that’s no joke

Detention Centre Inmate  The most interesting group in the Detention Centre, for me, were the conscientious objectors.  They were separated from us by the authorities.  Unlike us they were kept in single cells and of course, they wouldn’t do the military training, which was the main programme for most of the inmates.

When you registered the normal procedure was the following:  If you had a long record to which you could point to as a pacifist in civilian life, and all the evidence was produced at court, you could be registered as a pacifist or for non-combatant duties.  But most people who decided to be conscientious objectors never had any  record to prove it.  You suddenly say you’ve got religion, or you suddenly say “I’m opposed to war”, or you might even get one who says “I’m a fascist, I don’t want to oppose Hitler.”  A large proportion of these type of people could not be registered by the Tribunals as conscientious objectors, and they were liable for call up.  If they refused to submit, and refused to put the uniforms on, it was an automatic six months.

What they did was, they used to bring them in, put ’em in a cell, strip them naked, throw a uniform in, and that’s it.  You put it on, or you don’t, and in the middle of winter that’s no joke.  To reinforce the point, like as not, they’d put a hose on him, wet the whole bloody place out, including the uniform.  Every pressure was used, but some of these people were incredibly hard.  OK – some of them would eventually submit and put the uniform on, but make it clear that they were only wearing as clothing, and not as a mark of acceptance.  They weren’t stupid.  They knew in the first few months there was no point in making life too difficult.

At the end of the six months they would come up again and if they still refused it would be another six month.  But they got to know that the third time, possibly the fourth time, the authorities would finally give in, and register them.  All of the ones I came across knew this procedure.  They were prepared to suffer a year or eighteen months rather than submit to being called up.  To reinforce their position vis a vis their statement that they were conscientious objectors they used to play up rough a month before the end of their sentence, so to have evidence to show they were sincere.  What was interesting was the way they used to cut up.

You’d file round to pick your meal up, which was in a diet tin.  Everything would be splashed into the one can – your befores, middles and afters – it was horrible.  The first few days I couldn’t eat the stuff.  After three days it tasted like a banquet, because you were so hungry.  You used to parade after the meal from your association rooms in straight lines with your diet tins.  You had to put them on the floor.  The order never was “Quick march!” – the order was “Pick up your diet tins – quick march!”  You could always tell when these boys were going to start cutting up rough because they’d put their tins down, and as the order came to pick them up, they’d kick them straight across the bloody floor.  They’d be picked out and pounced on.  But it made clear that they weren’t accepting military discipline.  Even if they got a beating for it, they wouldn’t submit.

You very rarely had a chance to talk to them.  When you did you only had time to get that they were conscientious objectors.  I never came across in the snatches of conversation that you could have, in the situations where you met them, where they could explain in any detail whether they were religious, political or whatever.

There were three press men there and they were smiling with relief because they had all these religious objectors and at last they had a political objector

Tramp  Having failed to register in 1939 I changed my date of birth and registered.  You placed your name on the Provisional Register of Conscientious Objectors, and you were given a card saying you were provisionally registered and you were given a form on which you were to state your reason for being a conscientious objector.  This form had to be sent in to the clerk of the Tribunal.  I wrote “As a socialist I have pledged myself to oppose to the utmost of my ability any war started by the capitalist class in the interest of the capitalist class.”    This was at Stoke-on-Trent.  I had my tribunal at Birmingham.  I was given a railway warrant to travel to Birmingham.

The Tribunal consisted of a County Court judge, a university professor and a Trade Union official, who was absolutely hopeless.  When I got to the Tribunal I was the only person there who who hadn’t got a witness with him.  All the young men there seemed to have a clergyman with them.  There were three press men and they were smiling with relief because they had all these religious objectors and at last they had a political objector.

The judge said to me “What do you mean you have pledged yourself to oppose capitalist war?”  I said “I made a vow to myself that I would never fight in a capitalist war.”   “What about Russia?  Is that not a socialist country?”  “No”, I said, “I don’t think it is a socialist country.”  “What about a perfect state in which there were no capitalists?  Would you fight then?”  “That remains to be seen” I said, “but I’d like to think that in a perfect state without capitalists there wouldn’t be war.”   He and the university professor then withdrew.  This was the first time they’d done that, that morning.  They hadn’t withdrawn for any other case.  The Trade Union official then woke up and said to me “What about Russia?”  I said “I answered that question once.”   When they came back the Judge said “We’re satisfied your objection is conscientious. We want you to stay in your present work.”   I’d said I was a cook.

When I got back to Stoke on Trent that evening, right across the back page of the Evening Sentinel it had “Socialist Objector at Tribunal – To Stay in Present Job”, and gave a full report of what I had said, and ended by saying “Kepper, who is a cook at the Grand Hotel,  Hanley, is to stay in his present occupation.”   This upset my employers terrifically.  I wrote to the Tribunal and pointed out that this wasn’t the condition – it was to stay in my present occupation – not my present job.  There was quite a to-do over this, but it blew over.  When I wanted to leave Stoke on Trent I just left, and ignored the Tribunal decision.

Because I had broken the condition laid down by the Birmingham Tribunal I had a second tribunal in Bristol where it was laid down that I was to work “on agriculture, horticulture, forestry or work appertaining thereto or ancillary therewith”.  I was out of work and I got a job with the Gloucestershire War Agricultural Committee.  These were originally Land Drainage committees of County Councils which were taken over by the Ministry of Agriculture and War Agricultural Executive Committees.  Each county had its own War Ag and they had farmers on the Advisory Committee.  Most of them were farmers who were on their last legs or farmers who didn’t know their jobs and loved telling other farmers who were more successful how to do their jobs.  They could take a farm away from a farmer if they thought he wasn’t farming it properly.  They had terrific powers.  They also took on labour and opened hostels, sending out gangs of workers to different farms.  The farmers paid the War Ag and the War Ag paid the workers.

All of a sudden I’m conscious of being surrounded by all these big hefty Irishman, all holding out their sandwiches.  I said “What’s the matter?”

At first I was at a hostel at a place called Horsely.  This was a very old house which had been taken over by the Committee as a hostel.  The warden was a rather ruthless sort of martinet who didn’t like COs because they demanded their rights.  When I moved in the COs there had already complained about their food, and didn’t like being sent to bed at 10 o’ clock at night and lights out.  Eventually all the COs, including me, were moved to a place called Sezincote, near Moreton in the Marsh, in the north Cotswolds.  Sezincote was the name of an estate.  It was the home of the Dugdale family.  It was a big house, built in the Moroccan fashion.  Horrible looking place. It had enormous grounds all ’round the North Cotswolds.   We had a specially built hostel – a nissen type hostel – in the Dugdale grounds.

At Sezincote we had a load of Irishmen come over from Southern Ireland to work for the War Agricultural Committee.  Some of them couldn’t speak English.  Some of them were Gaelic speakers from the West Coast, from Galway.  They were classed as “Friendly aliens”.  “Enemy aliens” would have been kept under close arrest.  Friendly aliens were allowed in the country but they had to fill out certain forms.  There were about twenty five of them and I filled their forms for them and sent them off for them.   Many of them had families at home and they were allowed extra money from the Labour Exchange for their families.  They got about £1 five shillings for their dependants, so I filled these forms in for them too.  I got on very well with these Irish lads.

We used to go out in gangs of four or six or eight to work on the different farms.  There was one very elderly Irishman – Pat Brick – and when we got to the farm Pat would say “Now you sit down – you’re not to do any work.  I’ve talked to the other lads and I’ve told them we’ll do the work.”  They wouldn’t let me do a thing!  – Because I’d done different jobs for them, like filling in the forms.

I formed them into a hostel committee – properly constituted hostel committee.  I got them to join the Agricultural Workers’ Union first.  We had a dreadful new cook arrive, Mrs —–, from Chipping Sodbury.  She was a dreadful woman.  A really ignorant working class woman.  One day she gave us what were supposed to be sandwiches (we used to take sandwiches out for midday).  We went up to the kitchen counter to get our sandwiches, and I’d put mine in my bag, not paying any attention to them.  All of a sudden I’m conscious of being surrounded by these big hefty Irishmen, all holding out their sandwiches.  I said “What’s the matter?”  They said “Look at this.”   And it’s two thick hunks of bread, completely dry, nothing in between.  They said “We’re not going out to work with this.”

I went to Mrs —– and said “What’s the idea of giving us this as sandwiches?”  She said “You’ve got bread, butter and jam there.”  “Where’s the butter and jam?”  “You’ve got enough there.”   I went to see the warden.  “I’m not having anything to with you – you’re a trouble-maker.”   “Well”,  I said, “you’d better have something to do with these men, because we’re not going to work until we get proper sandwiches.”  We all went back to our dormitory.  About an hour later the Chief Labour Officer turns up – a little rat of a man named ——, who’d been to Cambridge University and had got out of the army because he’d been a clerk in an office, and the Chief Labour Officer had moved up, and he got the job.  The Gang Labour Officer, who was really in charge of us was a man named ——-, who in his spare time used to run a dance band under the name of Al ——.  He said he had been exempted from military service because he’d been in a corn chandlers shop before the war and so he knew all about agriculture!  Really – it was pathetic!  They used to talk about us conscientious objectors being cowards yet they were all exempt from military service on the flimsiest of grounds.

The warden came to see me and said “Mr —— is here and wants to see you.”  I went into the office.  He said “Good morning, Mr Kepper.  Sit down.”  “No”, I said, “I don’t sit down.”  He said “You think you’ve got a gang of ignorant Irishmen out there who you can do anything with, don’t you?  If I were to go out there and talk to those men they wouldn’t know why they were at home from work.”  “Wouldn’t they?”  “No, they wouldn’t.”  “Alright”, I said, “out you go.”  He went out and he came back in quicker than he went out!  I stayed in the office and let him get on with it.  We soon got better sandwiches, and off we went to work, much happier.

The Detective Sergeant threatened me “How dare you write these letters to the paper”

I was eventually moved from Sezincote, because I was considered a trouble-maker.  They moved me to a place called Nupend, a village near Stonehouse in Gloucestershire.  This was a hostel comprising a house called Sunnycroft, where the dining room, kitchen and warden’s office was, and three empty cottages in the village in which the residents lived.  I think it was the loveliest place we ever had.

Living there were some refugees from Germany and Austria, and some Italians who had come to this country in the 1920’s.  Most of them were business men who had cafes in South Wales – in Pontypool, Cardiff, Aberdare, Merthyr Tydfil – ice-cream parlours, and so on.  These men had been interned on the Isle of Man because they were Italian.  Their wives were interned if they were Italian, but if they’d married English women the English wives were at home, carrying on the business.

The warden was a Mr Cumrick Mitton-Davies.  He was ‘awfully’ public school.  ‘Awfully’.  A devout Christian.  The hostel was run by the YMCA.  He interviewed myself and a chap named Jack Bennet who’d been moved with me.  He told us that he felt it was his sacred duty to look after these refugees.

The Germans and Austrians had been released from the Isle of Man on condition that they did land work and they were only allowed to go five miles from the hostel.  The Italians could get permits to go home to South Wales for week-ends.  But one man whose home was in Cardiff couldn’t go because Cardiff was a protected area, even though he’d lived there from 1920.  There were a couple of Irish men there, as well as some Finns.  The Finns’ ship had come into port in England and they had been interned.

I had a room in one of these cottages that I shared with one of the Finns.  A great big tough chap who had actually fought the Russians when Russia invaded Finland.  The other person in this room was this Jack Bennet.  In the next rooms was a Bulgarian.  His first name was Bela.  He was an ex-second mate on board ships – tramp steamers.  He was a man in his forties who always had a jolly smile.  I had no difficulty in getting them to join the union.  Mitton-Davies was horrified, and he threatened to get in touch with the police.  He said these people had been released from internment and had no right to join a union.  I wrote to the union about this and they took it up with the Ministry.  When I organised a union meeting in Stonehouse, which was just over the five mile limit, Mitton-Davies tried to stop them going on the grounds of the five mile limit, but I got that stamped on as well.

The Finnish seamen were very anxious to get back to sea – it was their profession.  They had written in their own way to the Home Office and had no response.  At the time Eleanor Rathbone was an independent member of parliament. (5)  She was a really hard worker for refugees and I wrote to her.  She wrote back saying she would see what could be done, but she didn’t hold out much hope.  Then the lads heard, and told me, that the other Finns, who were still on the Isle of Man, were managing to get back to sea.  But they, who had been released from internment couldn’t get back to sea.  Naturally!  They were doing a useful job of work on the land!  So they mis-behaved themselves and got re-interned, and thus back to sea!

In the case of the big Finn who slept in my room, he got involved in what appeared to be a brawl at a dance hall in the nearby village of Whitminister, one Saturday evening, and got arrested.  I didn’t hear about it until he had been released on bail. He appeared in court on the Monday and a report appeared in the two local weekly papers in which it was said that he stated that he couldn’t understand English.  He was alleged to have got drunk and done some damage.  He said he couldn’t understand what people were saying.  The Detective Sergeant was reported by the paper as saying that when he arrested the Finn he spoke perfect English.  He was fined.  This infuriated me.

I wrote to the two local papers and said he sleeps in the same room as me and that I know he can’t speak perfect English.  It was impossible.  The Sergeant was wrong.  Neither of the papers published my letter.  But I did get a visit from the Detective Sergeant concerned.  He threatened me.  “How dare  you write these letters to the papers.”  I asked “How did you get hold of these letters?”  “Never you mind how I got hold of them.  You’ve no right to write to the newspapers criticising me.”   “I’ve every right to do so.  This isn’t a fascist country.”  “Don’t do it again”, he said.  I was so furious I wrote to the National Council for Civil Liberties, which in those days was Communist Party dominated.

The Secretary of the NCCL wrote back after a lapse of time and showed me copies that had been received from the Stroud News and the Stroud Journal.  It was the Stroud News that had shown it to the police.  “Yes, we did send it to the police because we thought it was breaking the Defence of the Realm Act.”   Which was ridiculous!  And then she started to lecture me on the rights and wrongs of writing letters to the newspapers on matters like this, in wartime.  “We’re all fighting fascism and these people are enemy aliens.”   I wrote back saying  that I wrote  asking for legal advice, not for a lecture, and that if that was the best she could do, I didn’t think much of her organisation.

That was the sort of thing you had to put up with.  Together with being constantly harassed in a mild way by the police during those years.  It wasn’t as bad, though, as it was for COs in the First World War.  They had a really terrible time.   Just as I was due to leave my job the War Agricultural Committee were thinking of having me prosecuted for sedition, but it never got to that, as I got off the land on medical grounds.  I went to Bristol for a few days and then onto London, where I got a job in Westminster Hospital as a porter.  A job I liked very much.

1.  The Home Guard was created after the war started. This is obviously a slip for ARP (Air Raid Precautions)

2.  For the role of the War Agricultural Committees, see further down.

3.  Lend Lease.  War and war effort related material supplied by the USA to the UK, the USSR, China, the Free French and other allies.

4.  Herbert Read, 1893 – 1968.  Art historian and critic, poet and anarchist.

5.  Eleanor Rathbone, 1872 – 1946.  Campaigner for women’s rights.  First elected to the House of Commons in 1929, as an independent for the Combined English Universities seat.  A vocal opponent of British government appeasement to Nazi Germany, she campaigned during the 1930’s for the government to grant entry to the UK for Jews, dissident Germans, and Austrians.

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11 Embarkation

He went out one morning and he didn’t come back for over three years

London Woman  My husband went in the navy. After his basic training he had a very short leave – ten days, I think.  He said he was going abroad.  I went back with him to Portsmouth – Southsea – and I got lodgings for one or two nights.  And then he went off.  He went out one morning and he didn’t come home for over three years.

2nd London Woman  Stan said he’d be home on Friday – week-end leave – because he knew he would be on the move.  I waited all Friday, waited all Saturday, had my lunch Sunday and thought “I’m an idiot.  He’s not coming.  I’ll go down there.”  He was stationed at Woking.  I’d never been there before.

It was a little wooden station and there was one man collecting tickets.  I asked him if there were any hotels and he said there were two.  I went to the first one.  They were full up.  The other one was across the road.  After a lot of chat they said I could have the maid’s room.  Right at the top.  I left my case there and I came outside.  All I got was his postal address.  A soldier was coming along so I showed him this address.  “Oh”, he said, “I’m going there.”  He came from Star Lane, Canning Town.  He walked me to this place.  When we got there he said “I’ll go in and see if I can find him.”  Then I was called in.  They thought I was one of these tarts!  They called me into the guardroom.

Her Husband  I was on guard!

2nd London Woman  They let him out.  They gave him a pass, and we shared the maid’s room.  Next day he had to go off at six in the morning, and he was going to try and get back in the evening.  I phoned up the office (I worked in the scrap metal business) and said I was very sorry, I’d got a bad bilious attack.  I wouldn’t be in for a few days.  I had a walk ’round and thought I might as well go and have some lunch in the hotel.  They found me a little table and I looked across and there, at a big round table, were eight to twelve men, some from my office, all sitting ’round.  One of them came across to me and said “What on earth are you doing here!”

I said “Now sit down Percy” – it was Percy Barlow – and I told him that Stan was going abroad and that I’d phoned Mr Ford and told him I’d got a bad bilious attack.  “Oh,that’s alright with me.  Come across with us.”  Those I didn’t know were looking, wondering – who is she?  I found out afterwards they were from head Office in Sheffield.  I hadn’t sat there ten minutes and he’d told them all I’ve got a bad bilious attack!  “Her husband’s going abroad.”

We were married in the July and he went in the October.  He was away for three years and nine months without a day at home.

Her Husband  Our convoy out was about fifty ships.  We knew where we going when they issued us these pith helmets on the ship, when we were half way there.  They also gave us our tropical kit.  The pith helmet was plain on top and you had to have a band – terrific yards of this sort of yellow material which you had to keep winding and winding and winding.  There was a certain way to do it, to get all the pleats in it.  We was all shown how to do it, but none of us could do it.  Only the old soldiers could do it, and when you wanted yours done, it was two bob a time they were charging.  Oh shocking.  All the old soldiers were promoted as soon as war broke out and they were the biggest fiddlers under the sun.

Going out we stopped at Durban for two weeks.  That’s when I  first felt the sun.  Going swimming you couldn’t walk on the sand.  It was red hot.

2nd London Woman  He sent me home photographs.  He’d been out with a family with two beautiful daughters.  Best leave he’d ever had, he said, and he’d only just had leave to get married!

Her Husband  They came to the dockside to pick us up in one of these American cars and they took us out to one of these Country Clubs – all the monkeys going up the trees, and all the blacks looking after you with drinks.  Wonderful!  We eventually sailed on and landed at Mombasa.

When we got there they gave us six petrol cans each and a couple of blankets.  That’s how we had to sleep for nearly three months.

Commercial Traveller  I was an electrician in the airforce.  When I passed out they stationed me at 41 MU at Slough and I went out with a Waaf.  I got the wrong side of her and the next thing I knew I got posted.  She was in the posting office, the bloody cow!  I didn’t know where I was going.  They told us we were going overseas.

They took us out in the middle of the night.  A train stopped in the middle of nowhere.  We went on this bleeding train, you didn’t know how long you was going to be, it went and it moved, and it kept on going and going.  You didn’t know when it was going to stop, where it was going to stop.  Finally, we got some place.  One of the blokes told us we were there.  We were in bloody Greenock!  Fancy taking us all the way to Greenock to go to bleeding Gibraltar,  though at the time we still didn’t know where was going.  I was absolutely whacked.  I’d been on the train for fifteen hours.  The worst part was not knowing where it was going.  If you ever had the feeling of being treated like cannon fodder, that was it.  We went on the boat and we still didn’t know where we were going.

They took us down below, below the hold.  You had all your benches where you used to eat and above that they gave you a hammock.  You had to sling your hammock up.  Rows and rows of hammocks.  All of a sudden you could hear the engines chugging.  You was going somewhere, but you didn’t bloody well know where.  You didn’t know where it was until you landed.  Throughout the journey you heard Boom Boom – bloody depth charges going.  All night long.  You could feel it vibrating through the whole boat.

I used to feel seasick.  In the daytime you used to sit at the benches, where you ate, with your hammock swinging above you.  You realised you were going somewhere warmer because it was getting stifling down in the ship.  And then, all of a sudden, my hammock snapped.  Bang!  They took me to the hospital ward and I played it up a bit.  I had a couple of nice cushy days there.  I also earned a bit of money.  I was a tailor by trade and all the seargents gave me their stripes to sow on.  I got a bit of drop that way.

Eventually we landed and we could see.  We were in Gibraltar.  Was it baking!  They took us to this place, which was the North Front Aerodrome (before the war it was a racecourse).  There was nothing there.  They didn’t expect us.  They had two bases on Gibraltar.  One was the seaplane base and this was the land base.  They had nowhere for us to sleep.  They had loads of petrol cans, so they gave us six petrol cans, they gave us three biscuits and a couple of blankets.  And that’s how we had to sleep for nearly three months.  You just wasn’t used to it.

They gave you a tin plate and you went into the cookhouse and after, you washed it in a thing like a horse trough.  You had to be very careful with water.  There was so little of it. You had to wash in sea water.  And as you sat there – bleeding flies.  As fast as you swatted them they were on you again – Oh, it was the most horrifying experience.  Flies galore on every bleeding thing.  The most unsanitary conditions.  And as I say, you had to sleep out in the open.  The officers?  Where were they?  Oh, they had quarters.   Definitely.  The Morocco Hotel!  Oh yes.

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