Our phoney war was soon all too real

DOODLEBUGS and walking four miles to school every day are just two of the wartime boyhood memories of the late Robin Dale.

David Kindred

DOODLEBUGS and walking four miles to school every day are just two of the wartime boyhood memories of the late Robin Dale.

His recollections - sent in by his son Kevin, of Grantham Crescent, Ipswich - are a fascinating account of growing up in south Suffolk during the Second World War.

Robin Dale's notes are as follows: “My memories of pre-war events are sketchy, but I do remember Queen Mary visiting East Bergholt in June 1938. Our families' viewpoint was on the bank beside Flatford Lane, we all waved our union flags.

“I started school at the age of four and a half, attending Brantham School. The headmistress was Miss Florence Tarbard who had also taught my father. The blackboard pointer was always in evidence beside her desk, never actually used in anger, but a suitable deterrent at all times. Our teacher in the infants' class was Miss Ruby Rich, later Mrs Howes; she was the personification of kindness.

“War was coming now amid much speculation, grown-ups discussing the implications very seriously. I can remember our HMV radio announcing the outbreak of war on that fateful day of September 3, 1939, sitting on the floor watching mum and dad standing in the kitchen doorway looking very sad. I was five years and five months old. Gas masks were issued. I rode on the front of dad's bicycle to Manningtree for him to register for possible military service. Unlike thousands of other families, he was not to be called up, his age and occupation excluding him. For several months our lives remained calm. The phoney war it was called, the real fighting going on in Europe.

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“Our lives seemed to centre on gardening and woodcutting. Sundays saw at least two visits to church. Brantham or East Bergholt in the mornings and St Andrew's Mission with Geoffrey Wheeler in the afternoon for Sunday school.

“Both my father and grandfather's gardens provided us with a great percentage of our vegetable and fruit requirements. It paid dividends to be a good gardener, while a standing order of good farmyard manure delivered by a horse and cart, ensured maximum fertilisation! A job for all of us at the time was wheel barrowing the stinking 'muck' up the garden to be dug in. During the summer the women of the village supplemented the family income by working in the fields picking blackcurrants, peas, potatoes, beans and apples in season. It was hard work; there were no modern methods in those days.

“As young children we spent hours sitting beside mum as she tackled the produce. I earned my first wage, a shilling (5p) using a knife with a curved blade to cut off potato tops before harvesting, this from Mrs Dennis, Buxtons Farm, East End, East Bergholt.

“A defining moment of my war came during the summer of 1940. The air raid sirens wailed out during playtime at school and we watched two British aircraft shoot down what turned out to be a German reconnaissance plane, which I understand fell at Clacton-on-Sea. I struggled into my gas mask. The teacher told me that it was not necessary, I took some convincing!

“A similar air raid warning soon after saw us all herded into the air raid shelters behind the school. They were a series of trenches reinforced with sandbags. As the Battle of Britain progressed we were to see plenty of aircraft overhead. A Hurricane flew over our bungalow, on fire and so low I could see the pilot crouched over the controls with the canopy open, another reason to run indoors and dive under the table.

“On Mondays, when off school, I would walk up towards East Bergholt to meet the Co-op van driven by Mr Scrutton, a First World War veteran, who had been shot through the face. He was a kind man who delivered the family groceries ordered the previous week by my mother, who had to balance the budget and the ration coupons. The bill used to come to around 15 shillings and always including articles that came to pennies and farthings. Of course we had other access to groceries and sweets. Mr Offord had a shop on the estate and also delivered paraffin for the stove. Methylated spirit was used for lighting up. Mr Hurrell used to come round once a week on his motorbike and sidecar delivering such luxuries as matches and Oxo's.

“From a fuel point of view we were allowed one hundredweight of coal per week delivered by Fred Stow and Bob Double. Each sack was humped from the back of the coal lorry and dumped into our coal bunker; the men were covered in coal dust. There was never enough coal during the winter so this was supplemented by wood and the occasional bag of coke, collected from Manningtree Gas Works, on a first come, first served basis. We children used the family pram to collect wood from the adjacent woods, a job that we had to do after school or on a Saturday, but never on a Sunday.

“Our milk was delivered by Miss Chambers who came round each day on a horse drawn float and measured out the milk with a one pint or half pint measure. More milk could be obtained from Mrs Dennis, Buxton's Farm. She skimmed the cream off the milk to make butter in a churn. I used to help her with this job. I spent hours walking behind a single furrow horse drawn plough worked by Eric the ploughman.

“For entertainment, mum and dad used to read to us every night and as a family we became very proficient at playing whist at which mum and dad were fanatics. I can still see dad's withering look if we played the wrong card. There were plenty of visits to uncles and aunts, while a red letter day was a visit to the Manningtree Plaza, a cinema with a corrugated roof that drowned out the sound when it rained. The programme changed twice weekly.

“In around 1941 a German bomber dropped a stick of bombs across the village, stretching from Spring Lane to Woodgates corner. Grandad and I set out to follow the bomb craters across the fields. We came to a huge “molehill” of fresh earth near Woodgates Farm. I was running about on top of the heap when a man with a shotgun shouted at us to get away. The unexploded bomb detonated a few hours later!

“Another incident of bombs came when, after shopping in Manningtree, cycling back across Cattawade Bridge, the siren wailed out and almost immediately bombs were dropping two or three hundred yards behind us aimed at Manningtree Station, but all missing the mark, and us, thank goodness. We spent plenty of sleepless nights listening for German aircraft and anti-aircraft guns. All our windows were taped up behind blackout blinds. There was no shelter in our garden; we used to share with next door - Mr Daldry, a builder who had built a concrete shelter before he was called to war. Despite all this we walked the mile to school every day including coming home for lunch. So it was four miles per day. One day the routine was shattered, literally, when a big bomb exploded in a smallholding behind Brantham church, blowing out the south windows. From our point of view we kids were exchanging pieces of shrapnel as mementos. This made a change from marbles and hopscotch in the school yard.

“In September 1942 I went down with diphtheria, a deadly disease of the throat and highly contagious. I woke up in St Helen's Hospital ten days later having survived the crisis. I was to spend 17 weeks recovering. During the time Ipswich was subjected to some nasty bombing raids. I was eventually released from hospital on January 26, 1943. I don't think mum or dad missed a day in coming to see me - a 24-mile round trip. Quite often dad cycled after completing a ten-hour shift. At that age I probably took it for granted.

“During my time in hospital, The Grange, owned by Mr Prentice, had burned down at East End. A Stirling bomber crashed on Cattawade marshes killing all but one of the crew. A week after hospital, a Spitfire exploded over East End. I watched pieces falling from the sky; the wings fell near the Royal Oak pub while the engine dropped in a field adjacent to Buxtons Farm. The Norwegian pilot was killed!

“Doodlebugs”, the German flying bombs came towards the end of the war. I was ten-years-old then. One day mum sent me to Manningtree to pick up a prescription from Lyons the Chemist. I reckon I broke the cycle record for the six-mile trip, I admit, I was terrified! The characteristic noise of that “Ram Jet” is imprinted on my mind. Listening to them in bed and waiting for the engine to stop. I re-collect seeing just a couple of those “horrors”; one went over our bungalow at about a thousand feet belching fire. I banged my head getting under the table! There was one which destroyed the church at Chelmondiston.

“During all this time my father had been a member of the Village Home Guard. The officers were Major Cousal and school master Harry Temple, both veterans of the First World War. My father had been issued with an American 300 rifle along with five rounds of live ammunition. He held certificates for use of the Bren gun and use of hand grenades. He refused a lance corporal's stripes and remained a private for the duration.

“It was an exciting time as 1945 started, watching the newspaper stories and accompanying maps that tracked the eclipse of the Nazi threat. “Hitler is dead” were the biggest headlines of my young life. May 8, 1945, VE Day. What did it mean to me? The village had organised a celebration on the Gandish Road field, then only earmarked for a sports field. The area was dominated by a giant bonfire capped by an effigy of Adolf Hitler. We all watched him burn, before being transported back to East End on a horse drawn haywain. What a day. Three months later we were burning an effigy of the Japanese leader, on another bonfire on another field, this time next to the Victory Hut on White Horse Road. Children's races, pillow fights and tossing sacks of straw were fiercely contested affairs as seemingly the whole village celebrated the final peace on VJ Day.”

- Robin Dale died in October 2006.

- Do you have memories to share? Write to Dave Kindred, Kindred Spirits, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN. Ore-mail info@kindred-spirit.co.uk