World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Derek Thorpe

You Could See The Stars

 

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Derek Thorpe
Location of story: Bradford

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Derek Thorpe,


My name is Derek Thorpe and I was born on the 20th May 1930 in Walsden, then Lancashire, but two weeks after I was born, they changed the border and that part of Lancashire became West Yorkshire.

The war started for me on April the 19th 1940. I remember it well, it was a miserable morning, drizzling and cold and I was quite fed up. I had recently lost my father through marriage separation and the family had been split up. My sister and I were involved in the mass evacuation from Bradford when the Baedeker raids (I think) had started at that time and they thought that Bradford and Leeds and all the surrounding cities would be bombed to the ground. My sister and I were included in a group of 300 children who were taken out of Bradford to a school at Linton in Wharfedale. We remember that date of April the 19th when we were all lined up, maybe 80 or 90 kids from our part of Bradford along Heaton Road, by a bus stop under the shadow of Listers’ Mill.

Enormous numbers of mill kids were crying, parents were crying and all the kids had a piece of string around their neck with a green ticket containing all their personal details. Everybody also had another piece of string across their shoulder, holding a wooden box which contained a gas mask. Some of the posher kids had a sort of cylindrical metal container that was used for the same purpose. I later got one but when you got your gas mask in you couldn’t get the wretched thing out without breaking it, so they were pretty useless.

Most of the kids were between 9 and 12 years old and I remember when we were stood at the bus stop I was quite concerned because among all the things we had to take with us, which we had a list for, I didn’t have a comb. There was a little shop near the bus stop, it was a wooden hut (it was there until the late 50’s), and my mum sent me in. I bought a comb for fourpence, which seemed like a lot of money at the time. We all scrambled aboard these various buses. We kids had only the vaguest idea where we were going, Linton might have been the other side of the world for all we were concerned, we didn’t know whether it was going to be a few miles or a hundred miles or what.

One of the events that I remember from the coach trip as we left Keighley and approached Kildwick on the way to Skipton, was an ancient bridge across the river, and we had to stop at one side of the bridge until a column of tanks came in the opposite direction. Of course we craned our necks out of the windows and as the tanks came across the bridge, some of them struck the kerb edges on the way across and sent pieces of kerb edge flying through the air like shrapnel. It made a heck of a mess of the pavements. The marks were still there on the kerbs until the City of Bradford Metropolitan Council, when they took over the area in their great wisdom, decided to remove all the kerbs and thereby removed a piece of history. I was quite sorry to see them go.

The place that we were heading for was Linton in Wharfedale and if you actually go through Linton village, up on to the crossroads where the Threshfield and Burnsall Road cross the Grassington to Linton Road, in a field right on the crossroads, in the shadow of Bolton Hill, are the remains today of a desolate hutment, a group of buildings partially demolished, some gone altogether that probably a lot of people don’t know, that formed the then styled Linton residential school for the Bradford council. They built it in 1937 or 38 in time for delicate children to spend holidays there as a sort of outdoor school.

When we went there, the builders were still actually working on the place and I remember when we got quite close to it, the first thing we saw was the water tower which became almost a symbol to us all and we had a little song we used to chant about it. In through the main gate we had all these buses all crowded together and kids all over the place. We were marshalled down a hill by the side of the dining hall into the new assembly hall, which to us was an enormous building, it had a sort of concert platform at one end and was very bare with no coverings or wooden boards on the floor, with rows upon rows of wooden benches, and we were all marshalled on to the wooden benches where we sat.

There was a group, whom I knew later to be teachers and staff, on the platform at the far end and there was a gentleman sitting at the piano. He was to me a man of beloved memory called Ernest Hessem who taught us woodwork and science, a superb teacher, he was known throughout the Bradford school area as Pop and he was playing the piano. Then there was Herbert Cooper who taught English, and I didn’t have such beloved memories of him and his nickname was La Bosh for reasons best known to us kids. He was a sort of Master of Ceremonies, and he led us in about an hour and a half of singing songs. 'Roll out the Barrel' and 'Run Rabbit Run', and I got sixpence to try and lighten the mood a little.

At the end of that, we were introduced to the staff and given our first disciplinary exercises, how we were to be marshalled with bells and whistles. Three blasts on a whistle meant it was meal time and we all went to the Dining Hall, two blasts and it was assembly time and we all went to the Assembly Hall for morning assembly. Long continuous blasts on the whistle were a precursor to an air raid warning and we all mustered at the air raid shelters.

In the morning, at 7.45am, our dormitory teacher rang a bell at the end of the dormitory. It must have been like a reform school I expect, but more benign. The dormitories were 6 buildings, one behind the other, up a gentle slope where there were wash places and toilets. Opposite the two top dormitories were for girls and the bottom 2 were for boys. The 2 centre ones were split into half for woodwork rooms and housecraft rooms and a sort of common room. It was all very strange that first day when we went there. I remember I was very frightened and miserable because I had recently lost the whole of my family. My older sister was with me at that time, she was 11 I think. There were 300 kids in the school.

One of the overriding memories I have of that first hour or so after we arrived, was the smell of Cedarwood , the whole place was built of it. Subsequently, I dismantled a lot of the hut that I lived in, it split beautifully with a penknife and we had a craze for something that kids don’t use now, throwing arrows. You could make an arrow of 9 or 10 inches long with a flight on, and wrap a piece of knotted string around one end, and hold it in a certain way and you could throw an arrow for three or four hundred yards. I was the master at it. I used a lethal dart at one end, a metal dart, which would have killed anybody it hit, but I could throw one of those things for maybe a furlong.

I subsequently ran a small business dismantling the hut, making it into throwing arrows and flogging them to the kids for tuppence each with which I bought my first stamp collection.

There was one boy I met the first day we were there, a very strange lad, quite well dressed in short pants and what would now be called a T- shirt. He had a very very strange accent and it turned out that this young lad called Kurt Hash, was a Jewish refugee . I later found out that his parents died in Dachau and only his sister and he managed to get to England. But being school kids and teachers being not quite as enlightened as they ought to be, they never thought to tell us the history of this boy. To us he was German, therefore he was a Nazi, and therefore he came in for a lot of stick. His life must have been hell. Anyway, later I became quite friendly with him and he taught me my first German, and then suddenly he disappeared. I don’t know where to, they came and took him away somewhere. I never saw him again; I'd like to know what happened to him.

Then there were the sirens, nights in a concrete underground air raid shelter. I remember the smell of those and the cold and the damp and being wrapped around with blankets. We had a teacher who had actually taught me before; she was my first infant teacher in an infants' school in Bradford, and she was one of the teachers there. She was a lovely lady who sang college songs to us while we were in the shelters, and read stories, a great lady.

Later, when the threat of air raids wasn’t as severe, instead of dragging us out in the early hours of the morning into the air raid shelters, they wrapped us all in blankets and hid us under the beds, and we spent several hours lying on the floor under the beds until the all clear went.

It was on one of these mornings, I remember we heard the sound of an aircraft. It must only have been a few hundred feet above the dormitory, making a terrible racket and sounding very strange, and in the morning, we heard on the grapevine that this aircraft had crash landed on the moor behind Grassington Sanatorium, which was about a mile and a half away. A group of us high tailed it over there and we got there just as the RAF people were leaving, and they’d left Army sentries to take care of the wreck. It wasn’t a wreck actually, it was an incredible thing, the guy who had landed this plane which was very badly shot up, had actually crashed it into a wall, pushed the wall down and managed to land upright in the field beyond. It was terrible ground, the whole thing was upright and intact apart from the damage that the rear turret was shot out, and there was considerable other damage that we sort of examined.

The young sentries (they seemed like old men to us at the time, but they must have been lads of 18 or 19), who were looking after the thing until the authorities came, took three of us into the aircraft and showed us around. That was a crossroads in my life, because from that time onwards, I was smitten with aeroplanes, any shape, any size. The smell and the feel of them for me as a kid, was like the way the Wellington Bomber was constructed, a geodetic framework designed by Barnes Wallis who invented the bouncing bomb, almost like a cage covered in canvas but inside was a mass of obstacles - long trays running along the side with belts of ammunition. I had never seen a bullet in my life until that time and here were thousands of them either side of the aircraft running up into the centre turret and running to the front turret and rear turret. We got to play about and I lived in pride on that event for ages; the other kids in the school were jealous to death, it was a great event for me, and as a result of that, I decided where my career was going to be. I decided I wanted to be in the RAF from that time until I eventually became a flight engineer with the RAF.

For the first 9 months of 1940 we were at Linton, those who lived through it will remember. From April right through to the end of September, it was a beautiful hot summer when all the pilots were dying and schools were closed. We didn’t go to school at all from when we came on to this site until the September. Term started, so we lost a bit of education but the Headmaster, William Sternwhite was quite an enlightened guy and thought that the best thing for us in those summer months, which might possibly be the last months of freedom for the country, would be playing out, going swimming and wandering around the countryside which we did.

We walked miles and I really started to read in that place because I spent hours and hours reading. I read everything I could get my hands on and remember by the time I was 10, I had read 'The Last Days of Pompeii', 'Gibbons Rise' and 'The Fall of The Roman Empire', I’d read all the classics.

We had a superb library and that was really my early education. I learnt about poetry, we swam in the River Wharfe and I can tell you that the River Wharfe is a cold river; it was like ice, even in mid summer. I nearly drowned there actually, under the iron Bridge at Linton Mill, it’s a beautiful place to play but very dangerous. It is a sort of rock system that drops about 20 feet and when the river is in spate, it is frightening place to be. I had been down there looking for fossils in the pot holes in the water, and I got caught when the river rose and before I could realise what was happening, I was stranded on a rock in the middle of this torrent. A young lad who came from Sedburgh School, who was on holiday (he was 15 or 16, not much older than I was), got me out. I was up to my neck in water and he came and got me out, otherwise I would have been a goner. You can stand on that Iron Bridge when the river is at its full height and you can feel the bridge trembling.

In early 1941, I was called to the Headmaster's study, it was on a Sunday morning I remember. I thought I was going to be in trouble for something, he was a disciplinarian and he used the cane a lot, but he called me in to tell my sister and me that our brother had been killed in action in the Mediterranean. In the fall of Crete his ship had been bombed and there it was, he was dead. I remember I wandered off on my own and I hid in an air raid shelter, it was probably midnight before they found me. It was a strange experience really. I was shouting at God. I hadn’t seen my brother since early 1939 and I remember the last time I saw him going back off leave just after the war began, running for a bus. I prayed virtually every night the way kids pray, that he would be fine, nothing would happen to him. Then I was angry with God because my brother had gone.

Shortly afterwards, I had another similar event. I was called back to the office. It was the Deputy Headmaster, Pop Essum who told me that two cousins I had who were in the airborne division in the western desert, had both been killed on the same day in the same action, so it was a time that I remembered.

Then I got diphtheria and I was taken to Bradford in the middle of the night. I collapsed with some fever and was choking. They took me to the fever hospital on Leeds Road in Bradford, which was a dreadful place to us at the time. It looked like a prison, because it was a hospital for infectious diseases. You were segregated and there were bars on the windows. Visitors were allowed to come for half an hour each Saturday or maybe every other Sunday, but they were not allowed into the building, they had to talk to you through the bars at the windows. After 11 weeks, I recovered from the diphtheria but unfortunately it appeared that I was a carrier, so then I was captive for most of the rest of that year. I know I was in hospital during the New Year 1942, its funny the things that you remember.

I remember November of 1942, it was the first broadcast of Roy Plumley’s programme, 'Desert Island Discs', and I believe the guest was Arthur Askey. There was no central heating in the hospital, just an iron stove in the middle of the ward, a coke stove.

At the end of my sojourn there, the epidemic of diphtheria had gone, and I probably was the only person in Bradford who was a carrier; I was in the fever part of the hospital all on my own. I had a staff of nurses and just me and I played out in the hospital grounds and passed my time as best I could, making model aeroplanes. That really sums up my war.

After I came out of hospital, I went back to Linton for a little while, then my sister's husband, who was a navigator in the Air Force, was stationed in St Athan in Wales and they had a flat in Barry, which was about 6 or 7 miles away from the airfield. I went down to stay with my sister as she didn’t want to be on her own. That was an exciting time, we had an Ack-Ack battery at the back of the house and a barrage balloon emplacement that I used to hang around, and talk to the people there.

When the air raids were on, they were very noisy things and where we lived was on a hill overlooking the docks, Barry dock. They bombed it quite frequently. When the Ack-Ack guns were going at the back of the house, the house shook; it was terrifying really.

I remember getting up one morning. I was delivering papers for WH Smith's for my pocket money. I got half a crown a week for delivering papers, morning and evening, and this one particular morning, the headlines on the paper were, “Rome declared an Open City," and to a lot of people it almost seemed like the end of the war. Of course it wasn’t, it was between August and October 1943. The other thing I remember is that when we moved from there, my Mother had got a house in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, and my two sisters and I and my younger brother went to live in Mansfield. The thing I remember about Mansfield was the 1000 bomber raids. It must have been on their destination for the big link ups and hundreds and hundreds of aeroplanes going across every night and the noise was deafening. The sky was black with aircraft. I can remember there always seemed to be a lot less noise in the early hours of the morning when they were going out. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but I know a lot of them didn’t come back.

That sums up my war. I was disappointed that the war ended when it did, I wasn’t all that excited by the great fuss that was happening. I remember the bonfire at Bankfoot and the crowd in the Town Hall Square at Bradford, dancing and laughing and singing, and that was interesting enough. Nobody seemed to want to got to bed that day.

I left school shortly after that. I was 14 actually, and lied about my age. I tried to join, as a boy entrant into the Air Force. I was accepted but after about 4 days, they became wise to me and threw me out. I did one or two things after that. I worked in a cellar making loaf tins for a company that made loaf tins for the big bakeries, out of sheet metal. I cut my hands to ribbons, it was a very unhealthy job. After that, I went to live in Lincolnshire with an eccentric vicar who was a friend of my father's.

I joined the Air force as soon as I possibly could, at 15½, and became a boy entrant. I went back to St Athen's again and eventually, I became a Flight Engineer. I worked on Sunderland Flying Boats, the Catalina Flying Boats, for most of my Air Force career in Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and Japan. I saw the Malayan campaign and the Korean War and had an exciting life in the Air Force. I was in an accident when my aircraft was blown up and I suffered a fair amount of damage, and after that, I wasn’t able to fly. I spent 4½years in Malaya; life wasn’t as exciting on the ground so I opted to come out after the end of my first 12 years


Pr-BR