Source 5 What was it like to be a child in Walberswick during World War Two?

 

These memories of three schoolgirls, Jill, 'Tommy' (Christine) and Beryl, all pupils at Walberswick Primary School when the war broke out, have been abridged from:

Further Suffolk Memories - More Stories of Walberswick and Blythburgh people during World War II compiled by Arthur Sharman and Patricia Wythe, The Yard Press, Sudbury, Suffolk 2001

 

JILLS' STORY

 

Jill was 7 when the war started and "really didn't know what it meant for the country to be at war. It soon became rather exciting, though, when we were issued with gas masks and identity cards and saw the village filling up with soldiers.

 

We were given gas mask drill and practised using a stirrup pump, which was a portable hand-operated pump with a footrest and used with a bucket of water to extinguish small fires. I also remember having sleeps in the afternoon at school due to lack of sleep at night when German planes were overhead and we were disturbed by exploding bombs and the noise of anti-aircraft guns firing.

 

The village filling up with troops with their lorries, jeeps, and other vehicles was really thrilling and watching them drill and marching to church on Sundays was fascinating. When the Cameronians arrived they really caught our imagination with the band wearing their kilts and practising and playing the bagpipes on the village green. The troops were very friendly and taught us Highland dancing and in the winter they would join in the fun helping us to build snowmen and having snowball fights. Summer-time saw us fishing in the creek from the Sluice Bridge with a little help from these new-found friends.

 

....Even though we were short of sweets and fruit we remained in good spirits and exciting things were always happening.

 

I remember one particular occasion when tea chests were washed up on the beach; they were collected and we scooped tea into bags from the open chests and took them home. At that time very little of the beach was open to us; most of it had scaffolding at the water's edge with iron spikes buried on the seaward side and it was also heavily mined. We swam a lot from the mine-free stretch of beach during the summer and would also play down by the river. I have a permanent reminder of those times when I caught my leg on one of the spikes and had to go to Southwold hospital and have it stitched.

 

There was one time I remember when I saw a stretcher was being carried along the street to Fisher's Garage and saw two large boots sticking out of the end. It didn't really register that it was a corpse. I was just told a body had been washed up on the beach.

 

I do remember being frightened once when I was at Walberswick School and there was an air-raid alert. We were not allowed to leave school during air-raid alerts, but this time the alert seemed to go on for ages and as there was no sign of any activity, Mrs Piper, our schoolmistress, told us we could leave in twos to go home. So Richard ..., who lived not too far from me, and I were told we could go. We had just neared the end of the school building and were about to cross the playground when I heard this awful noise and, pulling Richard with me, rushed back into the school. We were just in time - the noise had been a German bomber flying very low, machine-gunning and dropping bombs on Southwold. ...

 

We had evacuees in the village and this caused riots with the village children. I remember they were very unruly in school and were always getting the cane from the schoolmistress....

 

We often collected shrapnel to take to school after an air raid. At time the village organised a 'War Effort Week' and we children would collect salvage from around the village consisting of tins, paper, bottles, and other recyclable items. ...

 

When the troops moved out of the village and before the new ones arrived we used to scrump the fruit from the gardens of the houses they had occupied. The Nissen huts the soldiers lived in were often decorated with murals and pin-ups ...

 

When an aircraft crashed, as they often did in this area we would cycle to the spot, but of course were not allowed to go too close. We watched bombers, hundreds of them, flying out and then, some hours later, see them coming back, in ones and twos, many of them really crippled with silent engines and damage to the fuselage and wings. I didn't realise the significance of all this until much later after the war had ended".

 

Tommy's Story

 

 "I was eight years old when the war began. Mostly all my family lived in the village.... The BBC Home Service news told us war had been declared against Germany ... and the call-up of our troops were starting.

 

We were given identity cards with a number, which we were told to memorise. Gas masks came, we were shown how to put them on at school and carried them at all times in a cardboard box with a string strap....

 

The school windows were covered in a sticky net material to protect us from flying glass. Most windows of houses were criss-crossed with sticky tape. An ARP Warden instructed us how to put out an incendiary bomb fire with a stirrup pump and a bucket of water. All torches had a half-moon cardboard put over the top half to stop light going upward being seen by enemy aircraft. Blackout curtains or blankets were drawn at night before turning on electric lights ...

 

Some families had Anderson shelters dug in their gardens but we had a steel Morrison table shelter with mesh around the sides.  I can truthfully say that the only times I can remember being really scared was having to sleep in that thing, dreading to be buried alive. ...

 

At school we were warned not to pick up any interesting objects we found lying on the ground. The Germans were dropping nice things to tempt children to pick them up, which would then explode and if not kill us would probably blow off our fingers. I once found a fountain pen lying in the grass on the village green and after a while I gave into temptation and picked it up half-expecting an explosion. I remember feeling a bit peeved when, after having risked all to pick the thing up. I then had to hand it over for it to be claimed.

 

Sometimes at night we would watch the searchlights criss-crossing the sky, occasionally picking up a plane, the guns firing, and later picking up pieces of shrapnel as souvenirs. For years after the war we kept polished brass bullet cases standing on our mantelshelf.

 

The money families left the village for safer areas and their houses were then requisitioned either for the evacuees who came from the East End of London or for the army, the village being full of soldiers.

 

Village life was not to the liking of most of the evacuees ...

 

We were expecting an invasion: the Germans were at the ready the other side of the water. I sometimes watched from the top windows of our house out to sea, half expecting to see them coming. We kept a bag packed ready, because in the event of an invasion we would be taken further inland, to Halesworth I think.

 

My father ... was a Coastguard, and he with [3 other men]... had a lookout hut on the beach, which had to be manned 24 hours a day. They only had two rifles between the four of them. The beach had been mined, scaffolding erected along the waterline with concrete anti-tank blocks in rows along the beach. They would patrol the beach, meet with the Coastguards coming from Dunwich, and report and help to recover bodies and other items washed up on the beach. Sometimes they would get machine-gunned by passing German planes. I well remember watching from the corner seat the men carrying a body on a board to, I think, a shed at the back of the Anchor Hotel. They carried the body with respect, covered, or nearly covered for his feet were sticking out at the bottom, with the board resting on their shoulders as if it were a coffin.

 

One night a bomb exploded behind our house knocking down part of the Old Vicarage. My father who was on watch on the beach at the time saw, by the light of the explosions, tiles flying off our house and he thought our house had been hit. We were inside the house and were enveloped in a cloud of floating 'something'. I thought it was gas but it was only soot from the chimneys and plaster from the ceiling. ...

 

The ferry was unchained and left for some time lying on the side of the river and all signposts were removed.

 

I remember the sentries in a concrete pillbox by the Tower House challenging all entering the village after dark: 'Halt. Who goes there, friend or foe?'; answer: 'Friend'; reply: 'Advance friend and be recognised.' Whereupon you walked forward showed your identity card, had a chat with the sentry, and walked on. ...

 

We had community hymn singing once a week and many soldiers joined in, some singing solos. It was all good loud stuff with Mrs Meekins playing the organ...

 

As a hobby we collected cigarette cards from the soldiers and swapped them to get sets. ... the sweet coupons were about 2 ounces or maybe 4 ounces a week. Choosing what to have took time; chocolate-covered Blue Bird toffees were a favourite and maybe sherbet. ...

 

Certain people with foreign connections were being interned and we children were sure one or two were still in the village, one person especially we were sure was a spy. We followed her a lot hoping to catch her giving signals to German ships at sea... we did sometimes follow round the lane soldiers walking out with their girl friends until we were glared at and told to clear off.

 

We would sit on the green to watch the troops at their drill, being shouted at by the sergeants and sergeant majors. One sergeant major I remember well would make men drill over and over again. One day a man in full pack fainted and fell - other soldiers picked him up and put him by a garden wall. The weather was very cold and snowing; we wondered if he would be punished for not doing the drill - maybe even shot.

 

The soldiers would play snowballs with us and at one time we had big snowmen on the green. Later we saw the sergeant major marching, or walking smartly into the gateway of a village house which was being used as the Officer's Mess. We threw snowballs at him and one knocked his hat or cap off, I remember well him whipping round and glaring at us.  ...  gradually all the soldiers left the village leaving a few behind as rear guards. Something big was going on, so everybody said.

 

I clearly remember watching as wave after wave of bombers passed over, heading outward from the airfields ... By this time [1944] we were well accustomed to watching the German doodle bugs chugging along, being shot at from the shore-gun batteries and seeing our plans liming back after bombing raids with bits missing and engines on the blink. ...

 

My father had a big map on the wall, and as the news came through on the radio he would stick little pins on name places. ... Our war had been a bit scary at times, we were rationed but never hungry, and most of the time it was all quite exciting. ... The war had not been like that for others; we ... started seeing films of the terrible things that had happened in Russia, the German death camps, atomic bombs on Japan and other ghastly happenings. I was very glad to have spent my war being an ordinary Walberswick village kid".

 

BERYL'S STORY

 

"I was nine years old when war broke out ... I remember standing around the army cookhouse and talking to the soldiers. Also the army concerts in the Gannon Room and going to see films in the Barn Cinema and sometimes a concert. Although it was exciting seeing all the soldiers coming into the village, when the Cameronians arrived they really caught the imagination, wearing their kilts and marching up and down the village green playing the bagpipes.

 

... I remember whenever the air raid siren went off listening for the sound of German planes; they had a very different sound to ours. ... I will never forget the feeling of great relief when the 'All Clear' siren sounded after an air raid.

 

We had a Morrison shelter in our kitchen, which was like a big iron table where we went under when there was an air raid.

 

When we went to school we always had to carry our gas masks ...

 

When my eldest brother who was in the army came on leave, my friends and I loved to stand around the piano for a sing-song while he played all the tunes of those times. It was an awful time for us when the telegram came through to my mum and dad telling them that he had been wounded; and this really brought home to me what a frightening thing war was.

 

In our house we always had to be quiet when the news came on from the Home Service of the BBC. We would also listen to Lord Haw-Haw, the propaganda broadcaster from Germany, but we didn't take much notice of him especially after he had broadcast that the important railway junction of Southwold had been bombed. [Lord Haw-Haw's real name was William Joyce, a British citizen; after the war he was hanged as a traitor.]

 

When there was a rumour of an invasion my mum and dad sent me to Buckinghamshire where my eldest sister was nursing; it was certainly much quieter there, air-raid wise. I was there less than a year, as I became quite homesick. At one time my parents and Jill's guardian, her aunt Maud, talked about sending us to Australia for the duration of the war, but when news came that a ship carrying children had been torpedoed that put an end to that plan. [This was probably the City of Benares torpedoed on 17 September 1940, on its way to Canada when 77 evacuee children were drowned.]

I also remember seeing the huge crater made by a land mine in the tennis court of the Old Vicarage down by the ferry ...

 

I used to sleep in the attic and when peace was declared I remember an aeroplane coming overhead and thanking God how wonderful it was to know that never again need I fear the noise of a plane coming overhead."

 

Other stories

 

Harry Moreton was born in Warrington, then Lancashire, joined the 2nd/4th Lancashire Territorial Battalion with two cousins in 1938, and was called up on 3 September 1939. In 1940 he moved with his battalion to Walberswick to defend the Suffolk coast against invasion by the Germans. He was billeted in The Towers and recalls the building of the pillboxes, the placing of anti-tank obstacles on the beach, and the dismantling of the pre-war ferry across the Blythe. In Walberswick, Moreton met a local farmer's daughter and they were married in St Andrew's Church in 1942. (p160)

 

With the threat of invasion Fisher's Garage was requisitioned by the Army and Charlie Fisher was directed to war work as an aircraft mechanic in Lincolnshire. (p10)

 

The Home Guard

"My father ... was the platoon commander of the Walberswick Home Guard ... there were altogether about 150 men in the contingent from Walberswick, Blythburgh, Bulcamp, Sotherton and Henham. ... The Home Guard had .303 rifles, a Browning semi-automatic rifle, Mills 36 grenades and a Piat anti-tank gun fired from the shoulder. They wore battle dress.

 

The men were farm workers, fishermen and boys over 16, who all worked hard in the daytime. They used to train on Sundays near Blythburgh Hospital.

 

One of their jobs if we were invaded was to blow up the road bridge over the Blyth on what is now the A112, near where Blythburgh WI hut is now. Charges were laid and my father's job was to blow it up in the event of an invasion.  (pp12-13)

 

Bombs on Walberswick

 

Walberswick suffered bomb damage several times in 1940-41, mainly from German planes unloading bombs after raids inland.

 

A land mine fell on the grass tennis court at the back of the Old Vicarage (March House), where 22 soldiers were billeted, doing extensive damage. One soldier was injured...

 

Short Lane Cottage near the church ... was also hit by a bomb and was very badly damaged ... "the lady in Short Lane Cottage was very severely shocked. I remember she would not lie down on the stretcher when the ambulance came and was carried off sitting up".

 

"There were several occasions when the Germans fired their machine guns. Once a plane raked the street from end to end. Mrs Parnell was wheeling a baby in a push chair and had to run for cover into an alley. The plane was heading out to sea but the anti-aircraft guns found their target and it was shot down. We all cheered!" (p15)

 

An incendiary bomb fell on the garage of what is now Mill Cottage, and Dennis ... remembers watching, from the school playground, a German plane on its way home dropping 15 to 18 bombs on the marshes. The pilot could easily have dropped them on the village.

 

Units stationed at Walberswick were 2/4 Lancashires, Cameronians, Royal Berkshires and the Wiltshire Regiment. A Royal Artillery unit was stationed at Westwood Lodge. "The river Blyth silted up and sand appeared so children could play there. They could not play on the beach because of the mines and defences. Once boxes of margarine were washed ashore on to the beach and the villagers went to collect them in spite of the mines. At low water it was sometimes possible to walk over the river Blyth to Southwold." (p16)

 

Derek Kett was ten years old when war broke out. When he was old enough he joined the Home Guard and was employed as a messenger, using his own bicycle.  "The Home Guard would use the church tower as a lookout and one evening I was given a message to deliver to the police station about 1/4 mile away, at the bottom of the hill on the main London road. I left my bicycle on the side of the road and dashed up the hill to deliver the message. When I returned, there waiting for me, in the form of the law, was Inspector Bird from Halesworth who told me I would be charged with leaving a 'vehicle' unattended, which could have been of use to the enemy." (p80)

 


 

Abridged from

Suffolk Memories - Stories of Walberswick and Blythburgh people during World War II compiled by David Shirreff and Arthur Sharman, The Yard Press, Sudbury, Suffolk 1998

and

Further Suffolk Memories - More Stories of Walberswick and Blythburgh people during World War II compiled by Arthur Sharman and Patricia Wythe, The Yard Press, Sudbury, Suffolk 2001