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