Monday, 28 June 2021

At War! Bougainville: Jungle Attack

In 2014 I was contacted by Brigadier General Ronald R. Stockum, who was born on the 8th July 1916, just one week after his father Sergeant Reginald G. Bareham was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme whilst serving with the 11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment (the Cambs Suffolks). Since then I've got to know the General well and am proud to know him as a friend. Aside from the interest in his father, 'Van' as he is known, is a great source of inspiration and knowledge having had a long and distinguished military career. Indeed when I was studying for my MA I was able to tap into his memories of combat during the Second World War Pacific Campaign at which point he was serving with the US Marines as a young officer. Van, now almost 105 years old, continues to write a column in his local newspaper and I thought I would share his account of the Battle of Bougainville which was republished recently.

Here it is .....

Brief History
The island of Bougainville is named for French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who visited there in 1768. Japan invaded the island in 1942 to provide a support base for operations elsewhere in the South West Pacific. The Allied invasion began in 1943 with full control of the island not re-established until 1945.  Today, the region is divided into three Districts: the North, the South and the Central Bougainville Districts. 

French Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Jungle Attack 
On November 6, 1943, the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines debarked into landing craft from high-speed transports, actually old converted destroyers, and landed in reserve on the Torokina beaches.  My thoughts, as I faced infantry combat for the first time, were mixed.  While anxious to prove myself, I was apprehensive about the uncertainties ahead and in my inner thoughts hoped to find the battle won and the island secured.
Promptly at 9:55 a.m., the shells of supporting artillery commenced their welcome shrieks overhead.  This is it, I thought, as the chatter of machine guns joined the crescendo to signal two minutes to go!  I made a quick visual check of my weapon and equipment, being unconsciously joined in this by a thousand tense, serious and determined men. As I glanced at my watch, the minute hand seemed to race toward ten o'clock.

US Marines - Bougainville Jungle, 1943

An enormous silence signalled H-Hour, 10:00 a.m., the time of our attack. The battalion sprang to life.  Small patrols moved out and were soon swallowed by the dense jungle. They were followed by the battalion in seven files; each preceded by scouts and a team of machete-wielding marines.
I slipped into my accustomed place near the battalion commander in the center column.  There was little difference between this actual attack and the many that we had rehearsed during training on Guadalcanal. The shade of the jungle was just as friendly and welcome as ever, but what else might it shelter and conceal?  Contrary to popular belief, the jungle is relatively cool, the towering growth providing shelter from the tropic sun. 

A copy of the jungle attack formation carried in combat by the author, November 1943 

An Incredible Sight
Soon after initiating our attack, we encountered an incredible sight!  Covering an area less than the size of a football field was a ghastly tableau of a Japanese assembly area. It contained at least three hundred of the enemy in all sorts of grotesque poses.  Some had died clutching shovels, desperately in the act of digging in.  Some had been surprised while eating what became their last meal.  Others were stilled in the act of undoing their packs.  The stink of putrefaction was not yet in the air, but dominating the dreadful scene was the spectre of death.

I silently thanked God for the barrage which had destroyed this well-equipped and heavily-armed force before it could extract its toll from the ranks of the First Battalion.

Brigadier General Ronald R. Van Stockum (June 2021)

Friday, 26 March 2021

The Smoke Lane Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Bristol (1940-45)

To counter the six major air raids on Bristol during the Second World War, the 'first to be built' heavy anti-aircraft batteries in close proximity to the city deployed twenty four 3.7" heavy anti-aircraft guns - four for each of the six batteries. The firing during the raids must have created quite a cacophony - on the 11th April 1942 'Good Friday Raid' on Bristol in 1941 the guns fired a total of 6765 rounds. Whilst only two Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down by the Bristol HAA batteries throughout the war, they played a major part in the defence of the city - forcing the raiders to fly high and presenting a picture of defiance to a frightened population. 

The Magazine at Smoke Lane HAA Battery

Remnants of five of the six original batteries - Easton-in-Gordano, Portishead, Rockingham Farm (Smoke Lane), Cribbs Causeway, and Purdown - are still extant and two are accessible to the public - Smoke Lane and Purdown (both of which are scheduled monuments). The sixth, at Winterbourne, I've not yet found. By the end of the war the total number of HAA batteries protecting Bristol under the auspices of RAF 11 Group (West) numbered twenty. This post covers the Smoke Lane site which has been opened up to the public with the help of English Heritage, who have installed a very helpful information board and financed a number of access paths. 

Smoke Lane - Info Panel
Although accessible it is not the easiest place to find. If travelling by car come off the M5 at Junction 18, and head towards Bristol Port. At the roundabout in front of the Port gates take the last exit and head north along St Andrew's Lane (the A403). You will see the railway tracks on the left and after about half a mile or so you will reach another roundabout. Take the first exit into what looks like a factory complex. The road which is bordered by metal fencing on both sides, will take you straight to the site. 

Once you've parked up, go to the information board in the north east corner. You will see the old magazine on your right and the remains of the control buildings directly in front. The four gun positions can be easily discerned and whilst three have been filled in with building debris, the fourth on the right hand side has been cleared and is accessible. I would describe the condition as 'fair' - a number of the other HAA sites around Bristol are in much better shape, but not all are easily accessed.

Gun Position No. 4 at Smoke Lane

The interpretative aids on the site are very helpful. For example the strange triangular indentation on the floor in one of the control buildings were footings for a Predictor machine (called a 'Kerry' after its inventor Major A.V.Kerrison at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, Teddington). The height, speed and range of a Luftwaffe aircraft was predicted and the information passed to the gunners who would do their work. 

Floor of Predictor Building
ATS Predictor Operatives
The Smoke Land HAA complex was once much larger. There was a radar station to the east, and a hutted camp nearby. The site was fully operational from 1940 and initially manned by the 98th HAA Regiment. It protected the northern end of the Avonmouth Docks firing out into the Bristol Channel. 

There are a number of other interesting buildings on the site - albeit in a collapsed or sem-standing state. As with similiar battery locations elsewhere, various building were used for storage, ablutions and offices and the remains of a brick built hut, which may have been used for one or more of these purposes, can be seen at Smoke Lane. Other structures at Smoke Lane including a concrete platform for telescope use and a building used to house a height finder instrument (which was used in conjunction with the predictor). There's also a slightly larger structure thought to have been a command post. 

The remains of the Control Buildings at Smoke Lane

The magazine, which can be accessed via a path at each end, consists of a corridor and five ammunition storage rooms - fenced off for safety reasons. The guns were served with high explosive (HE) and shrapnel 28lb shells. The fuses worked on timers with the standard maximum being 43 seconds. The bulk of the ammunition was stored in the magazine with supplies for immediate used kept in the bins which surrounded each of the gun pits.

The Magazine at Smoke Lane HAA Battery

The 3.7" guns themselves were relatively modern for their time. First deployed in 1938 (and two years later at Smoke Lane) their effectiveness was incrementally improved over the course of the Second World War. By 1945 they could fire 32 rounds per minute through auto-loading and could hit targets of up to 32,000 feet - though they rarely did when in action.

As an aside, The Shopland Collection, based in Clevedon - have a General Electric 3.7" Heavy Anti-Aircraft Gun which is operational (blank firing). Shoplands can provide a crew and will pull it using an AEC Matador Tractor. It is available for demonstrations and is often seen at the annual 'Dig for Victory' event which takes place on the Ashton Court Estate near Bristol.

For a post about the Purdown HAA Battery click here - Bristol's Air Defence (1940-1945)

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. 

After the Bristol Post published my article about the local Starfish sites, a 90 year old retired electrical engineer contacted me. I subsequently spent a few hours with Frank Newberry, who was able to give me some insight into how the sites worked. The sites would typically be manned by a a couple of RAF personnel who would 'fire' the installations upon receiving orders from their local HQ. The main sites were fired by means of an old fashioned Post Office uni-selector feeding a control box in the middle of the site. The sites were set up in two parts, so they could be used on two nights, which helped with the rebuild. A typical site consisted of four sets of twelve containers each filled with inflammable debris such as wood or textiles. There would be an accelerant such as oil or petrol. Each 'basket' consisted of an oblong open topped container made of what looked like roofing material. A detonator would be 'plugged' into the bottom of the container and a wire run back to the control box. Frank helped with the installations and was part of a team that would reset the sites once they had been 'fired'. 

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Memories of a Wartime Schoolboy - Alton, Hampshire (1940-1945)

By Michael Curme (1930-2016) - Written in June 1990

I was born in Alton. at the Manor House. My father, who comes from Petersfield, was employed by Percy Binsted, a dentist of Normandy Street, as a dental mechanic. My mother comes from Portsmouth so I can claim to be a Hampshire man even though my travels rarely bring me into contact with my home county. Soon after I was born the family moved to Park Close Road and then to a new bungalow in Anstey Lane. My schooling started with a primary school where I was under the tuition of Miss Fielder and when I was nine, in 1939, I was moved to Eggars Grammar School — Headmaster, the Rev. Wheatley.

Edna & Michael Curme
However, this article is concerned with my memories of 'Wartime in Alton' so this is the subject I must concentrate on. In the thirties our nearest military airfield must have been Royal Air Force Odiham and our nearest Army establishment at Bordon, with the Army Railway to Longmoor. My grandparents had connections with the Army and Royal Marines, but I first became aware of the RAF when a single-engined biplane with a crew of two flew noisily low over our bungalow and crashed into some wooded high ground some half-a-mile or so from the end of our garden — it was probably a Hawker Hind. Later, I remember watching the Schneider Trophy races from Southsea sea front, but that's another story.

At the start of the war my parents (Charles Henry and Edna Alma) had been advised by my father's employer to let the bungalow and move into the first floor flat above the surgery and waiting room of the dental practice. The kitchen and dining-room were on the ground floor and we had three bedrooms, one sub-let to a Miss Penn, and a fine sitting- room with a bay window overlooking the convent garden opposite and with good views up and down Normandy Street and also down the road to the railway station and the bridge carrying the railway across the Bordon road. To the left of this junction was a row of cottages and double-fronted newspaper shop — Ham's. Ham's shop was painted green, owned by four sisters and everything in the window was marked 'ONLY 6d', 'ONLY 3d', etc. Mrs. Anderson lived in one of the cottages; her husband was later killed at Dunkirk.

Above our flat was a second floor which included a bedsitter for Constance, the dental nurse-receptionist and some large empty 'play-rooms'. Below the house was a two-roomed, damp cellar and there was a long, pretty garden which was walled. The workshop where my father worked was to the left of the house.

Michael with his Father (RAF) and Maternal Grandfather (RMA)

Times were hard financially but we were fortunate that my grandparents lived in the country and by the sea, and that both couples and most of my uncles and aunts could be easily reached by train or bus. In the weeks before the declaration of war I can remember the tension of family discussions on Southsea beach and at family meals in Southsea. My parents were home in Alton and I listened with awe to the grave voice of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain; later I was taken home from Southsea. News bulletins were listened to avidly on our battery-powered wireless set. Incidentally, the batteries were glass with metal carrying handles and were taken to a local garage for recharging.

Michael Curme modelling 1940 style PPE

There were many preparations for the coming conflict and air raid shelter trenches were dug in the grounds of Eggars Grammar School, on the side nearest the town centre. The pupils would regularly file into these trenches, rather like a fire drill. Rationing and shortages began fairly rapidly and the meagre fare of a few ounces of fat, of meat and a single weekly egg and so on were supplemented by some awful, dried salt fish and delicious powdered egg in waxed boxes sent from the U.S.A. One was very careful not to visit a friend for a meal without providing a share of the repast from one's own rations. My father made wooden frames covered in black material which were fitted into the existing window frames each evening to provide a complete 'black out'.

Many window-panes were covered with a criss-cross of brown sticky tape to lessen the effect of flying broken glass in the event of bomb blast. We were much more fortunate than my relations in Portsmouth with their Morrison and Anderson shelters. Everyday products became very short in supply and it was difficult to buy chips from the fish and chip shop near the cinema without providing a sheet of newspaper for wrapping.

My father (left in the team above) was quick to volunteer for the RAF but prior to that he joined the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) and the Home Guard. He was often out at night guarding possible landing sites against the threat of German parachute troops. As to myself, I was recruited into the National Association of Spotters Clubs, a junior branch of the Observer Corps. We met in a hut near the Butts and learnt Aircraft Recognition - a skill I have retained to this day! Sometimes when the LDV were out in the countryside the NASC members manned a small local telephone exchange. I can recall sitting at a table in the open hallway of a large house near Eggars waiting for an upright telephone to ring, admiring the leaf-covered walls in the sunlight. I wore an LDV armband, but I We no idea what my instructions were if the telephone rang; but as a 10-year-old I felt very important!

This period was, of course, known as the 'phoney war' and as it ended I can still recall the sense of excitement and the feeling of some foreboding as the adults discussed the Dunkirk evacuation and listened to Winston Churchill's speeches. A ride in a car was a real treat and one evening I accompanied my father and Percy Binsted to a dental job some miles out of Alton. On the way home they stopped for a drink at a pub. This pub was on high ground and I was scared by a distant glow in the sky and the flashes of silent explosions completely inexplicable to me then but I later learnt it was a German bombing attack, Southampton, I think. After the disaster in France the military commandeered delivery vans and lorries and one day I was called upstairs to witness an enormous convoy of vehicles driving up from Bordon and turning left opposite the house to travel down the High Street. There were all types of vehicles hurriedly painted with one coat of khaki paint so that the original owners and business were still faintly visible 'COAL MERCHANT', 'BUTCHER', etc. All driven by soldiers.

By now my father was in the RAF and working at Halton in Buckinghamshire so was able to travel home by train for the weekend when he managed to get a 48hour pass. He occasionally brought his friend 'Hoddy' home and one sunny afternoon I can remember tea in the garden watching contrails far above and the distant chatter of machine-guns. How remote it all seemed! As the Battle of Britain increased in ferocity we would sometimes hear of a nearby crashed German aircraft, so my friends and I would be off on our bikes to see the wreckage.

One wrecked Dornier was by a gypsy encampment and I was horrified to find the pilot's body with his fingers cut off to remove his rings and a group of women pulling the leather boots from his lifeless legs. The military would arrive to guard these wrecks, a bell tent set up and a man with a rifle would make sure the aircraft was not disturbed before Intelligence Officers had inspected it. However, there were plenty of scraps to be found scattered in fields - pieces of twisted metal, expended ammunition and real treasures like engine nameplates with real German words like 'Daimler Benz'. The metal was very lightweight and had a pleasant, pungent metallic smell.

Michael's Air Recognition Book & ACF Armband

One afternoon, when my father was home, we were standing in our bay window when a low-flying aircraft could be seen banking to line up with the High Street. My father said it was a Bristol Blenheim but I corrected him knowing it was a Heinkel Ill. It passed our window at below tree top height, flying from right to left with the front gunner spraying Normandy Street with machine-gun fire. Only superficial damage ensued but when a school friend, Gordon Stewart, who lived near the station in Ash Dell past Rock Cottage (home of the butcher's widow and her two daughters), showed me a terracotta chicken feeding bowl chipped by a Luftwaffe bullet we knew the war had really come to Alton. If I saw the pilot now, I would still recognise him, in his flying suit, goggles and flying helmet.

Heinkel v.s. Blenheim from Michael's book. Easily confused but in 1940, incorrect recognition could mean the difference between life and death.

Gradually the town and surrounding countryside began to fill with soldiers from the Dominions. Many were billeted in the town or were invited in to share meals at many homes. Our top floor was used as a billet for nurses but there was a large encampment of Australians, mainly engineers, in the fields by the 'Butts'. These were fine, open, big-hearted men and I became their mascot, accompanying them on route marches on the lanes towards 'The Golden Pot'. They would sing Aussie songs and occasionally their NCO would blow a whistle indicating an approaching aircraft and we would all disperse and sit under the hedgerow until the danger had passed, presumably we were invisible from the air. I would wear an Australian Army hat.

Badges collected, by Michael, from soldiers billeted near Alton

On a couple of occasions, the Australians opened their camp for a Sports Day, Australian-style but these sports were completely foreign to us - log splitting races with giant axes, hop-skipping and jumping, and rail track laying. We townspeople looked on in amazement at the strength and agility of these big, friendly men. Later French-Canadian regiments arrived but these men created a very different atmosphere. Pilfering and drinking were rife and attempts to forge friendships in the community spurned. We asked two in for a meal to share our meagre rations and they stole my father's shaving kit. One dreadful night I woke to hear my mother screaming 'Michael' and I ran to find a fully dressed Canadian soldier climbing into my mother's bed. He had fallen asleep in the dentist's waiting room and then decided to move upstairs. Fortunately, my mother was unharmed and she laughed when she thought of the neighbours seeing her letting out a Canadian soldier in the small hours. It must have been very frightening for her. All these troops would sit on walls throughout the town and the Australians would help pushing prams and carrying shopping. One morning we awoke to find the wooden signs for the Alton House Hotel and the Convent had been swapped and customers for the hotel were being redirected by bemused nuns. Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent sitting with one of the sisters in their pretty garden learning my catechism. By the way, the Roman Catholic priest was Father Lane and it was to him that I went for my Confirmation in the tin roofed church next to the convent. A segregated regiment of black U.S troops arrived and they seemed like men from another planet.

Pages from Michael's autograph book (Michael's Autograph Book for the names) 

At this period of the war the government was making a great drive for scrap metal and men came along and removed most of the railings from house fronts throughout the town. Most people contributed pots and pans or other metallic objects. Drives for money were also made and these were termed 'Warship Week', 'Spitfire Week', etc and these often involved a carnival procession and children's races. We schoolboys were involved in selling programmes for these events and my pitch was in the doorway opposite The Crown Hotel. People were very generous and for programmes costing half-a-crown some would give ten shillings or even a pound. For some reason we thought the extra money was some sort of tip in recognition of our services, and the long days passed excitedly as we mentally calculated how much money we would be given when the tins were opened at the end of the day. I can't remember feeling disappointed so perhaps it really was a fantasy.

The blitz on Portsmouth was a terrible time for my maternal grandparents so they left their home at times of greatest onslaught and lived with my paternal grandparents in Petersfield. Grandfather worked in the Naval Stores Office in the Portsmouth Dockyard and commuted by train. We were, therefore, in a position to occasionally visit them by train or bus. When I was at school my mother worked at Maltby's Garage in Selborne where she did the office work, but like everything else in total war the garage was switched from cars to arms production and at one time were producing the first rockets for the Hawker Typhoon ground attack aircraft. Private transport was only rarely seen because of petrol rationing and lack of spares but public transport was running adequately. Headlights were reduced by baffles to a single narrow strip of light, supposedly invisible from the air. This together with the removal of road directional signs, to hinder enemy invaders, made travelling quite a hazardous adventure.

Gilbert Price with his Grandson, Michael

As the blitz on the cities decreased German night intruders became more prevalent seeking targets of opportunity, but these frequently led to the air raid siren sounding at night ensuring further sleeplessness. Mother and I would sit on deckchairs under the stairs, at the top of the cellar steps, we would try to sleep wrapped in blankets and listen to the sound of distant aircraft explosions and antiaircraft guns. One bomb destroyed a council house and killed the old couple who lived there. I can recall the couple in their garden, the man drilling holes for potatoes, his wife always in an apron, dropping the seed potatoes in.

Taken just prior to his death in 2016, Michael taking pride in his aircraft recognition skills despite being severely debilitated by Parkinson's Disease.  A treasured memory for his son (me!) on the right.

Lasham airfield was constructed and I can remember the local furore when a beautiful avenue of mature trees was cut down during the construction. Mosquito aircraft were based at Lasham and the distinctive note of their Merlin engines became a regular feature of nights under the stairs. Sometimes their landing lights could be seen out of the window. RAF Odiham, incidentally, sported a notice 'Join the RAF and see the world' underneath was written 'And the next'.

About this time we left Alton. the blitz had finished and we joined our relatives in Portsmouth - a new school, British restaurants, the D-Day sailings and V1 rockets!

Michael Curme 

June 1990

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Memories of an Evacuee - Bibury and Other Places (1940-1945)

By Janet Curme (nee Saunders)

I have many memories of Bibury as a small child escaping the bombs raining down on Portsmouth and going to live in Modena Villa with Will and Bee Adams who were friends of my Grandmothers from her time as a teacher at the local school. 

Beautiful Bibury

I was a private evacuee staying with people who were very kind to me, Bee Adam was my 'second mother' and life at the garage business that Bee and her husband, Will, ran was very different from being an only child loving in city centre a flat in Portsmouth. When I left Portsmouth, I had two toys, a couple of dolls named Ann and Beauty. I remember my mother saying, "do you want to dress them before you go, as they only have their nighties on?". I said that I would take them as they are.  

Bee & Will Adams
My parents drove me to Bibury in their Austen 7 car using some of their precious petrol allowance. They dropped me off and just disappeared, and I was told afterwards that my mother cried all the way home. My father was a Special Constable and after the war, when I visited the flat where my two Grandmothers lived in Portsmouth, I noticed a truncheon on the wall in place of a cuckoo clock.  I recall that my father did a lot of Fire Watching during the Portsmouth Blitz.

I spent my first night on two chairs pushed together in the sitting room. The house had a big garden back and front with chickens, a large dog called Major and a mottled cat called Tiny who kept having kittens and hiding them. No-one took much notice of me and I looked after myself. At supper they got me to eat spaghetti saying it was worms and I was always given a small glass of cider. There was a Jewish family staying in the same house, who had escaped from Germany and an old man called Mr Botting. I got his name wrong and called him 'Mr Bottom’, but he did not seem to mind. I never heard him speak and he always sat at the head of the table at mealtimes. Nobody took much notice of me and I can't remember being unhappy. 

My father and I, Bibury (1943)

I joined the village school and ran wild with Margaret Lees, Keith Beam and the evacuee kids from the Pike. Each morning the London evacuee kids passed the house and I was pushed in amongst them for the walk to school down Water Lane and past Arlington Row. I was good at jumping the gaps in the wall outlets to get to the river. When I go to the village school now, I notice the line in the playground where the boys' loos used to be. I'm in the middle row centre in the photo below.

Miss Hearn's Class at Bibury School (1941)

On Empire Day we walked around the square behind the Union Jack with the villagers watching us; how proud we were. I remember names - Gwen Arkle and the Smiths, John Adams and his sister. My parents visited rarely as petrol was only meant for business purposes but when they came father would help with the harvest and Harold Adams repaid him with a pack of homemade butter and a fowl. My teacher was Miss Hearn who lodged with a lady just past the post office who had suffered a stroke.

George Adams

The school was scary at first, I was only six and there were a lot of horrid boys from London staying in the village. I was able to read and had to sit on a desk with three horrid boys facing me on the opposite seat. They could not read and seemed to have no intention of learning. One of them was called Sid Smith and he was the ink monitor. Every week my mother would send £1 by post for my keep and a tube of sweets. In those days it was a real pen with a nib and an inkwell. This horrid Sid would give me an empty inkwell unless I gave him a sweet. I dreaded Mondays and worried the Sunday before. The first lesson was reciting psalms and I'd never heard of them. Children were picked out to recite and I was terrified it would be me.  

Opposite Modena Villa was a large area of allotments fronted by stone mushrooms and a huge stone bath - which I was told was an ancient coffin, and which made a wonderful boat. Old George Adams from the Catherine Wheel came at 6.00pm every day to listen to the news. There was a camp of servicemen at the Pike and I remember dozens of soldiers sitting on the grassy bank outside the Catherine Wheel drinking beer. There was one bus per week to the nearest big town; 'Ciren' as we called it.

Arlington Cottage
I had to get milk from Mr Pritchard and his sons who had a dairy on the right 
of the house, the last before Post Office Corner I think. Sunday school was obligatory, with Rev Squires and a beautiful, framed picture of Christ with eyes changing position when you studied it. The organist, I was told, wore a corset! The school dentist arrived periodically and as we were ushered in one-by-one we had to spit in a bucket full of what looked like blood. Sid Street, one of the London evacuees, told me I had to drink it! Mr Rigby was headmaster and stood with his cane in his hand, but never used it on me. Keith Beam was caned several times for poaching trout from the local river. I stole raspberries from the allotments at Arlington and was shouted at for paddling in the stream at Arlington Row, "We have to drink that water". The bakehouse at the top of Arlington sold the most delicious lardy cakes and warm bread and I got into trouble for picking at them on the way home.

Phyllis Adams - Policeman's Wife
At one time my grandparents took one of Will Adams' cottages at the end of Arlington and I remember peeping out and watching Mr Smith doing his ablutions in the open lean-to, the cottage was at the very top of the high bit overlooking the river. The garden is gone but I think the stone stile still stands. The cottage had no kitchen but my grandmother cooked Christmas dinner on a large primus affair and the range in the living room. There was a cellar, and a boiler house opposite for washing the clothes. A fire had to be lit under the boiler before each session. There was a tap for water, but it would freeze and the well had to be used. Mr Lees would come and empty the bucket in the garden lavatory and bury it in the garden. The cottage was the last at the very top of the high bit overlooking the river. The garden is gone but the stone stile is still there. There was a cellar and we also had a boiler house opposite, where all the clothes were boiled up.

Arlington Row, Bibury

I stayed away and gradually forgot about my old life. Eventually my parents found a safer house near Portsmouth and I went back to live with them again. This was a cottage in the country at Hunston, quite near Chichester, and by the canal. I was still lonely but did have two ducks and a chicken called Bobtail. I can remember saying my prayers and asking God to send someone to play with. There was a huge tank trap about three feet from the back of the cottage. Behind the tank trap there was a large field with mushrooms, beyond which was the Spotted Cow pub which was a favourite with my father. Once he ate so many mushrooms he was poisoned. When the canal froze my father would walk across despite my mothers' protestations. One day he fell through the ice and the water came over his knees. Quite often we would have to break the ice to free trapped swans. My mother would pick blackberries which were sold to a fruiterer in Portsmouth - my father travelled backwards and forwards regularly.

The Old Bridge at Bibury

Behind the field was a large Canadian Army Camp. The soldiers were a rough lot. My father had to go and see the Head of the Camp twice because on two occasions soldiers came to the house and asked for bread. Never meeting anyone on my frequent cycle trips to Donnington on one occasion I was surprised to see a group of young soldiers blocking my way and acting silly.  They had tied condoms to the overhanging branches of the overhanging tree dripping and I just thought they were bonkers.  I did not tell anyone and never saw them again.  After pretending to stop me they let me go.

Miss Hearn's Lodgings by Jack Saunders
Probably due to the isolation of my mother we moved in with my Grandmothers sister Alice at The Mount on the canal by a lock (now flats).  She had a huge garden with an air raid shelter with a secret compartment for money etc which we could never find.  I took the exam for Chichester High School.  My father was friendly with two teachers and they told him I had failed, and I understand not even borderline.  So, doing their best for me I was taken with my mother to Portsmouth High School which was evacuated to Hinton Ampnor House.  I must have been about ten years old and I remember a class was in the hall learning French and I wondered what on earth it was all about.  A wise move for me?  I am not sure.  I was reading well when I first went to Bibury School at six years of age so I must have been eager to learn.  It was the junior school the senior having been evacuated to Petersfield.

Modena Villa, Bibury - My Grandparents + Two

Return to Bibury, 2002 - with Michael

I must have been over 11 when after three or four terms the school came back to its building in Kent Road, Portsmouth and my two grandmothers ended up sharing a flat in Marmion Road, my grandfather having died in Bibury. Back to Portsmouth and at first living at Cosham in a small semi-detached until my father bought an old terraced Georgian army house with basement kitchen, maids’ entrance and bedroom, wine cellar, butler’s pantry and powder closet.
My grandfather is buried in Bibury graveyard and used to visit occasionally for a few quiet moments.
Janet Curme (nee Saunders) 

Sunday, 17 January 2021

An English Parish Church - Crucible of Military History

Unable to venture far because of the current pandemic lockdown restrictions, I thought I would take a closer look at the church of Walton St Mary in Clevedon which is a few minutes walk from my home. English parish churches are crucibles of military history, and this one is - I suppose - fairly typical. Armed with a list of the Commonwealth War Graves for St Mary's I set out to see what I could find.

Walton St Mary Church, Clevedon

The first thing I discovered was that not all Commonwealth War Graves have the standard CWGC headstone. I've since learnt that the families of many casualties elected to mark the grave of their loved one with a bespoke memorial or headstone. Indeed, of the four CWGC plots at Walton St Mary, only one has the familiar CWGC headstone - Boatswain Edward James Neville Sawkins, who at the age of 61, was killed whilst serving with the Merchant Navy on the M.V. Robert F. Hand, an oil tanker operating out of Avonmouth.

Edward Sawkins - Merchant Navy

The other three CWGC plots were more difficult to find (I can recognise a CWGC headstone from 100 metres after years of practice!). The first, Horace Sidney Broderick, Army Service Corps, died on 13th March 1917 and was buried in the Broderick family plot after a funeral at St Mary's. His memorial which is almost illegible with the passage of the years records the fact that he was a prominent member of the church choir. The second, Private Willian Hinton Butler, was a Lewis Gunner with the 13th London Fusiliers. He was wounded near Delville Wood and was shipped home from a hospital bed in Rouen having seemingly recovered. He died, aged 21, on 2nd October 1916.  He shares a headstone with other family members where his epitaph tells us he was wounded during the Battle of the Somme 'fighting for King Country'. The headstone is cantilevered over at a crazy angle.

Private Bill Butler - Wounded on The Somme

The fourth grave is that of Private Bertram Noel Coates of the Artist Rifles Officer training Corps. Like the other three burials at St Mary, his funeral was held at the church and according to a contemporary press report his coffin was covered with a Union Jack and bore a wreath in the shape of a harp. Private Coates died at home on 31st March 1917 and left a widow and an infant daughter. He is memoralised on a family headstone which is, unlike the other two, in relatively good shape.

Private Bertram Coates - Artist Rifles

Inside the church is a memorial plaque, with Regimental badges, commemorating parishioners who were killed during the First World War. Of the eight names listed, five are officers - 2nd Lieutenant Edward Anstie of the Rifle Brigade, Captain Henry Boucher M.C. of the SMLI, 2nd Lieutenant Conroy Fair of the Coldstream Guards, 2nd Lieutenant George Fair also of the SMLI (Conroy's younger brother) and Captain Robert Tawney M.C. another man serving with the SMLI. The three 'Other ranks' on the memorial do not match the burials outside. Coates and Broderick are there, but not Private William Butler. 

Walton St Mary War Memorial

As with many other churches there are a couple of smart, and presumably expensive at the time, brass plaques commemorating individuals who were killed whilst an active service. 2nd Lieutenant Lewis Hopkins was killed in action at the Battle of Loos on 26th September 1915 whilst serving with the SMLI. The second plaque commemorates Lieutenant Robert Walter Laurence Edginton, 5th Battalion Royal Warwickshire regiment who was killed on June 13th aged just 19 years. The former has no known grave and is commemorated on the CWGC Loos memorial and the latter was interred in the CWGC Berks Cemetery Extension in Belgium. 

The Anstie Plot - with Memorial

So ... four CWGC burials (one with a CWGC headstone), a memorial showing eight names in the church along with two private memorials. But that's not the full story. It's always worth having a look at other references in cemeteries and in the case of Walton St Mary there is an inscription to Ed. Basil Anstie, aged 19 'killed in France 1918'. Whilst Anstie has no known grave he is commemorated in no fewer than four places - Walton St Mary War Memorial (see above), St Paul's Church - Walton in Gordano War Memorial, the CWGC Pozieres Memorial and on the stone surround of the family plot - again at St Mary Walton. 

Reflecting on this visit, I find myself thinking about the memorialisation of war dead - the decision not to use a CWGC headstone, the choice of names on War Memorials, the gradual decay and disappearance of memorial inscriptions and the fact that having the means to pay for a brass plaque inside a church gives longevity to memory. And of course inscriptions are not confined to those who died in service. At Walton St Mary there are grave references to Colonel William Sturgess of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, died 1936 and also Edward Henry Moore 'sometime Colonel' in the Royal Marines Artillery who died 24th August 1922.