Setting the scene...
||Child War Memories - the early war years. (Page
was born at Vantorts Road, Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire in
August 1935 and therefore was just over 4 years old when war was
declared in September 1939. I cannot remember this at all but do
remember the Summer holiday that I had with Mum and Dad in
August that year at Clacton on Sea in Essex. I can vividly
remember the Boarding House we stayed in for a week and even
some of the guests. Similarly I can recall walking down to the
sea front with my Father before breakfast and watching a Paddle
Steamer arrive or depart from the pier. I expect like many
children of that age, I had woken early each morning! I can also
just remember the train journey from Sawbridgeworth to Bishop’s
Stortford, from there onto the single line that went to Dunmow
and on to Braintree, Colchester and Clacton. The line to Dunmow
was closed to passenger traffic in the early fifties and then
became one of the casualties of the Beeching axe in the Sixties.
On the return journey we stopped off at Colchester where my
Great Grandparents, on my Mother’s side of the family lived,
close to the Station at the ‘bottom’ of North Hill. My Great
Grandparents had been undertakers in Colchester. I can remember
being fascinated by the goods trucks on the railway bridge over
the North Hill Road being shunted, which were viewable from
outside of the house. On the way back home my bucket and spade
were left on the train.
Early war years...
The first thing I remember about
the war was that we went each night to our neighbours cellar -
this must now be into 1940 and after the ‘phoney war’ period,
not that I can remember that at all. Our neighbours were
Vantorts Farm, owned by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Balmer. Much later I
learned that Robert had come South from the Northeast to farm
sometime in the very early 30's and my Father had purchased a
part of his stack yard in 1933 to have our house built.
Apparently in the year immediately following the house being
built there were two hay stacks in the back garden, but I
digress. The farmhouse was pretty old with timber framed walls
and the exterior just lathe and plaster. However, it did have a
substantial brick constructed cellar (walls and floor) which was
fairly large and it had been temporarily equipped with basic
furniture, including a couple of single beds. As cellars go it
was ‘normal’ I expect - I can still smell the damp and musty
atmosphere and the smell of candles and an oil lamp. Robert
Balmer, being a farmer had a car and this had been adapted to
carry a Siren. He was one of two car owners who toured the small
town (a population of only around 3,000) to give the Alert and
All Clear. This was my first knowledge of Red, Amber and All
Clear that became so familiar. Of course as a farmer he also was
the proud owner of a telephone and this had been extended to an
extension in the cellar. He had a grey Sunbeam Talbot car,
something he cherished and kept to well into the late fifties.
In fact I actually drove it after my National Service 1953-55.
Having received the Red Warning he would rush up the stairs and
reverse the car out of the barn/garage and once on the road,
start the wailing siren. Similarly of course the All Clear
later. The only time I remember being frightened was when a
stray bomb was dropped on Cambridge Road outside some council
houses. Although about a mile away, the explosion was very loud.
Three houses were demolished and several people and children
lost their lives.
An evacuee from the East End...
Sometime in late 1939 we took in an
evacuee from the East End of London. All I can remember was that
his name was Frankie (Apparently Frank R. Wildman - 1939 Census). Frankie was not happy at all and only
managed to stay about 2 months I think. All I remember of this
was that he suddenly disappeared and later my parents were told
he had caught a train and went back home. I seem to recall he
was sent back but again this did not last - he was very unhappy.
For some reason he was the only one who was billeted with us.
The only other evacuee that I recall in the road was Joan
Osborne from Clapham in East London. She was a couple of years
older than me and was billeted with Mr. and Mrs Cole in the
road. She stayed on throughout the war and was sort of reluctant
to go home I think!
My Father was in the Fire Service
which he had joined as a volunteer in 1921. He was also the
foreman of the local Malt Extract Company - H. A. and D. Taylor.
With both these occupations he was exempt from call-up. Although
things were beginning to get ‘organised’ it was not until 1941
that the National Fire Service (NFS) was formed. My Father spent
very little time at home as he was at work for long hours each
day and in 1940 was on duty all night at the local fire station.
A little later it became one night on and one night off. The
closest the local brigade came to the Blitz of London
(Sawbridgeworth was just 25 miles from Charing Cross) was to be
called into Leytonstone to replace the local brigade(s) who were
then backing up the central London brigade. They apparently
dealt with several incidents while there on several occasions.
In respect of my memories of this time the most vivid is going
out of our house front gate in the dark and turning to look
South towards London. The sky was lit up red for as far east and
west as I could see. I can remember to this day feeling very
scared and my Mother saying to me ‘come on we must get down in
A German plane flew very low...
Sawbridgeworth was home to a then
very well known Building Company, Walter Lawrence and Son, who
had their pretty large Joinery Works on the banks of the River
Stort. The works were in fact sandwiched between the river and
the main Cambridge Railway Line, about half a mile due East from
our house. They became a major manufacturer of the fuselage of
the Mosquito two engined aeroplane for DeHavilland at Hatfield.
Obviously the Germans were aware of this and something else that
sticks in my mind was, in the middle of the day a German plane
flew very low over the works (South to North) without any
resistance being shown at all. The siren had announced Red Alert
and my Mother and I had been advised by Robert Balmer to take
shelter in his cellar. However, before we got there and as we
turned into the farm drive next to our house this dark black
plane, on which one could easily see the swastikas, flew over
the works only a few hundred feet above ground level. It was
obviously a reconnaissance aircraft taking photographs as within
a week or two the works were pelted with incendiary bombs and
the part next to the river - pretty well of all wooden
construction - was burnt out. Because the boundary of
Hertfordshire and Essex is the river Stort and the joinery works
was therefore just in Essex, the then ‘rules of engagement’ for
Fire Brigades meant that the local brigade were unable to
attend. Something that some members in the brigade who worked
there could not get over for a number of years! As well as the
Work’s destruction those who worked in that part lost all their
All we could see was a wall of fire...
My maternal Grandfather worked at
the Joinery Works as a Carpenter and Joiner and lived only a few
hundred yards from the works, in Sheering Mill Road (now
Sheering Mill Lane). He was fortunate in two respects, firstly
the part of the works that he worked in largely escaped massive
damage and he was able to recover his tools and secondly, the
house that they lived in was also left undamaged. However,
several of the houses in the ‘block’ and in the road did receive
stray incendiaries but were dealt with successfully and little
damage occurred. It is the only time in my life that I really
saw and experienced my Mother being very very upset. From our
house we overlooked the Joinery Works and on the night of the
attack all we could see was a wall of fire. Knowing that my
Grandparents house was only just beyond the works it looked as
though they too were on fire! I suppose one should congratulate
the German pilot(s) really, as their target aim was excellent!
What was said afterwards though was that with the works neatly
sandwiched between the river and railway they were easily guided
towards their target - it was a clear moonlit night!
Water in the dugout...
The houses in Sheering Mill Road
were, and still are, terraced. The couple living on one side of
my Grandparents were both rather deaf. One of my jobs, when at
the house when the siren went, was to knock on the wall to warn
the neighbours. I knew that I had been successful when I got a
knock back! Sheering Mill had a dugout in the then small field
on the North side of the road immediately beyond the local
general store. I can never remember it in use because it was for
ever rather full of water! I can recall my Grandfather, with
others, having borrowed the Walter Lawrence trailer Fire Pump to
pump it out on a Sunday morning. I don’t know how many times
this was done!
The home dugout, rats and all...
My Father dug a shelter in our
back garden, I suppose this was early in 1940. It was certainly
complete when the RAF were fending off the Luftwaffe as I can
recall only going down in it a couple of times. Once, was on a
Saturday afternoon when my Father was at home and there was a
dog fight very high over us. I can remember seeing the vapour
trails high in the sky and hearing the shooting. I was not
allowed out to watch though and I never heard of any downed
planes in the area. My Father, working at the local malt factory
had access to wooden barrels. The timber slats from these were
used to shore up the sides of the dugout. Corrugated Iron
sheeting was used over the top and this covered with the earth
from the hole in the ground. This arrangement was not very
successful though as the local rats from the farm thought this
was a haven and soon settled in behind the boarding! It was
probably useable for less than 6 months really! Later, an indoor
Morrison shelter was applied for and this Meccano type affair
was erected in the kitchen in place of the kitchen table. It was
very strong though with a steel top supported by about 2" x 2"
steel angles top and bottom with strong square steel mesh at the
sides. Entry was through two of these wire panels which were
sliding - we felt very safe in it. We ate our breakfast at it
until the end of the war. After its disassembly it got used for
all sorts of things including some of the main frame angles
making the top of a cold frame for the garden. The sliding mesh
panels made an excellent front to my rabbits hut cage and I
still have some of the spacers that were used in the assembly.