Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Foolish Young Officer (1917)

The following is transcribed from a recording that my Great Uncle, Alf Curme, made in the early 1980s. The story was one of his favourites and he would often tell it when in the company of friends or family. His thick Hampshire burr was a pleasure to listen to - and is it now on the original recording.

The Hampshire Yeomanry, A Squadron, Petersfield


At the time of this incident Alf Curme was serving as a Private with the 15th (Hampshire Yeomanry) Battalion. It occurred sometime after September 1917 following the 'dismounting' of the Hampshire Yeomanry. Alf was obviously delighted to have 'got one over' on an officer. He may have saved a few lives in doing so.

Alf, with his sister Nell

When you went up the line through the Ypres Salient, to the tip of the 'U' you know, where our fellows were, quite a lot, there was a timber track. The roads were so muddy they just disappeared into slush - there was no drainage system. At one time we were just past 'Dicky Bush' lake (Dikkebus) - it was a horrible spot - just grease and mud. Your horses used to go in up to their knees trying to pull the limbers through. Anyway they decided to make a timber track and they got lengths of pine and laid them all out. What a game that was! The stuff used to move about.

There was one very, very strict rule and that was - never stop on the track. At the start of the timber road there was always a military policeman. And he always stopped everybody and told you when to go. He would stand there for eight hours taking his turn. When the German's were shelling they almost

always used to shell in groups of six. He would know where the last six dropped having counted them. When the last one went off he would say "hop it, get over that track fast!".

The great thing was never to stop on that track because if you did you couldn't get anything past either way. I was in charge on this particular night. We were taking field cookers up to our blokes because they were in the reserve trenches. I had four field cookers and the usual limber and GS wagon and all that sort of thing. Maltese carts with all the Red Cross stuff in. I had probably fifteen to twenty vehicles. I got about a quarter of the way along this track and there were some bloomin' artillery blokes with guns - limbered up - with their poles down and their bloomin' nose bags on. They were on the track - half way along!

Alf Curme, Hampshire Yeomanry
I rode on ahead when I saw this lot and said to one of the gunners; "what the hell are you doing here?". He said "we've got a young officer up in front and he's trying to rule the roost mate, he stopped us all and started the feed - told us the horses will be safe on here". He paused and then added a word of warning "don't you be saying a word to him".

I said; "by God, I'll say a word - where is he!". I went on ahead with all my usual kit on - tin hat on the top and all my slings around me and the rest of it. I found this officer bloke and I said "what bloody Brigade do you belong to? I'll bloody well report you!". For good measure I added "do you know you're infringing the rights of every damn trooper?". I put the fear of God into this fellow. Then he suddenly said to me "what rank are you?". "Don't you worry about bloody rank" I said. We don't all carry it on our great coats. You get these bloody things limbered up and out. Hop it!". He damn well moved quickly! He cleard off up that track and I thought to myself you cheeky blighter.

I was so mad, I couldn't help it - to see the young fool had done that. He'd already been warned by his own Sergeant that the track wasn't passable.

Alf (right) with his brother, Charles
Note: Alf went to The Sudan after the end of the War where he was awarded the Order of the Nile (5th Class) for his help in building the country's railways. Later he served in the Allied Control Commission, helping to rebuild Germany's railway network in the aftermath of the Second World War. He and his wife, Josephine, had one daughter Joan. I remember Alf as an affable, modest and practical man who was quietly proud of his achievements. 

The original recording can be heard here

To hear Alf's account of an encounter with German Uhlans click here.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Starfish Sites near Clevedon (1940 - 1944)

During what history may record as the Great Pandemic of 2020 to 2021, restrictions on travel have meant that my battlefield walking has been confined to the local area. Whilst this has been frustrating to say the least, it has given me the opportunity to make new discoveries close to home. The nearby village of Kingston Seymour is tucked away on flatlands near the mouth of the River Yeo and, like virtually every other town and village in the country, there is military history to be discovered - always in the local church, and often elsewhere. 

The War Memorial, Kingston Seymour

I started my walk at the very fine Kingston Seymour war memorial. A 14th or 15th Century stone cross has been repurposed as a memorial to those who died in the Great War of 1914-19. After admiring the four carved figures representing Victory, Peace, St George and St Michael and visiting the local church I headed off to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Bristol Channel from the fields beyond the village. Sadly, access to the foreshore is impossible but as I was strolling back I noticed what looked like a military bunker half way up Yeo Bank Lane. 

Private Air Raid Shelter - Kingston Seymour

Later, in the evening, I discovered a pamphlet entitled 'Battle's Over, Long Historical Trail' produced by the Kingston Seymour History Group. The bunker I'd chanced upon was in fact built by a local farmer, Don Griffin, in 1941. He wanted to protect his family given that the village had been designated a combined QL and QF decoy site - the latter sometimes referenced as SF or Starfish

I was aware of the so-called Starfish sites around Bristol. Indeed the first one to be built in the United Kingdom is situated on nearby Black Down. Of the 18 QL and QF sites built to protect Bristol and Avonmouth, four are in the vicinity of Clevedon - Kingston Seymour, Priddy, Downside and Kenn Moor. 

Given the lockdown restrictions in place, two are within my reach - Kingston Seymour and Kenn Moor. A second walk along the lanes at Kingston Seymour took me up to the boundary of Wharf Farm where the Starfish site was centred. Sadly, the landowner does not allow access so my investigation had reached a bit of a dead end.

What were QL and QF sites? As the Luftwaffe bombing threat became more potent, particularly after the devastating night raids on Coventry on 14-15 November 1940, two new types of decoy were devised. The 'L' stood for lighting, the 'F' for fire and the 'Q' (or sometimes 'S') was the code designation. In the case of the QL sites, they were designed to mimic the reaction of an industrial area to a bombing raid. Lights would be dimmed or extinguished as they were in the case of factories and military installations. In simulating this, the idea was to draw bombs away from the real targets and onto areas where little harm could be done. The larger scale QF sites came into play slightly later
on the timeline. They would be lit after bombs had hit the real target in the hope that at least some of the aerial attack could be diverted.

Decoy Sites

The map above shows the concentration of decoy sites around the city of Bristol. The city was 'target rich' for the Luftwaffe - aside from the conurbation itself the Bristol Aircraft Company's factory at Filton, the National Smelting Plant at Avonmouth, the Electric Power Station at Portishead and the Parnell Aircraft facility at Yate were significant contributors to the war economy. The black circle denote QF sites and the triangles mark the QL installations. 

Not to be defeated by my failure at Kingston Seymour, I set off for to see if anything survives at the Kenn Moor Starfish site nearby, a short distance down Claverham Drove. Quite often when I'm walking such sites, I have to rely on my research and my imagination but on Kenn Moor I didn't need to resort to either of these tried and tested methods. The evidence is there, plain to see ... and explore.

Starfish Control Bunker

Starfish Control Bunker - Side Elevation

Although the turf covering has gone, the blast shelter and generator house at Kenn Moor is still intact. The blast wall in front of the main entrance has been removed but the one facing onto the QF field is in relatively good condition. The structure has two rooms - the first for personnel and the second (on the left in the picture above) for a generator. As an aside, there is a vast badger sett directly adjacent to the building - which presumably extends underneath the concrete floor.

The lights and fires used at such sites were ingeniously configured to replicate the real thing. Furnace and locomotive glows were simulated using red and amber lights shining onto sand, bundles of wood would be burnt, machine oil would be lit and carbon arcs were used to simulate flashes. At the Kenn Moor site there are two concrete holders in a nearby field - each consisting of two small parallel walls and a longer base. The 'War in Kenn' History Project has surmised that they were probably built to support baskets of wood shavings - amongst other purposes.

Material Holder - Kenn Moor

The number of Starfish sites built across the country increased throughout 1941 - rising from 108 in March to 164 by the end of the year. The first were constructed around Bristol, indeed the very first QF firings occurred during a raid on the city on December 2nd when 66 high incendiary bombs fell on the decoys. In the excellent book 'Somerset and the defence of the Bristol Channel in the Second World War' Messrs Dawson, Hunt and Webster say that after the war the Air Historical Branch estimated that 5% of the bombs dropped on Britain were diverted by decoys. According to documents released in 1979 an estimated 3160 injuries and 2596 deaths would have occurred had the decoys not done their work. Bristol's decoys were amongst the most effective and it is true to say therefore, that the Starfish sites around the city saved lives in the vicinity.

Aerial Photo of Starfish Site - Location Unknown

The photo above shows a typical Starfish site. The site would have a control point and a series of metal, concrete and asbestos structures each designed to contain inflammable material or devices for illumination. Each site had a telephone link to a local command centre and there were strict controls around when to light up particular sites. Timing was crucial as the raiders need to see a decoy site in operation as they approached the area of the real target. 

Interior of Kenn Moor QF Control Centre

By the end of 1943 the sites had achieved their purpose. The number of larger scale bombing raids diminished and other defensive measures had been deployed. Both Kenn Moor and Kingston Seymour were decommissioned around the end of that year. As far as the latter is concerned the (up to) twenty four RAF personnel manning the site who were billeted in the village left to take on other duties. The evidence of this epic endeavour remains however - if you know where to look and if the land is accessible. Let's hope that some of these unique structures are preserved for posterity.