World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                        Donald Linder 

A Potted History of My War Years

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Donald C. Linder, Ray Goodman, Hilary Fry
Location of story: Rochester, Beau Manor, Loughborough, Leicestershire, Woodhouse Eaves, Huddersfield, Otley, Lichfield
Unit name: War Office Y Group (WOYG)
Background to story: Civilian Force


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Donald C. Linder.

A Potted History of My War Years

Donald C. Linder

In September 1939 I was entering my fifth year at school and was expecting to take my School Certificate exams in the summer of 1940. However due to mounting crisis in the political arena it was decided to evacuate the school to a safer area as war was imminent.

I was living in Gillingham in Kent at the time and being only thirty miles from London and with the Naval Dockyard only a couple of miles away in Chatham the Medway area was considered to be a likely target.

I believe we boarded our train on Sept 2nd and set off for Sandwich which is the nearest part of the UK to the Continent. On a really clear day it was possible to see with the naked eye land on the other side of the channel - a distance of some 20 miles.

On the afternoon of Sept 3rd the school was grouped in an area behind the school we were to share with the locals and then the Prime Minister Mr. Chamberlain declared war on Germany. This was followed immediately with an air raid warning which turned out to be a false alarm. Many of the lads spent time scrumping apples from a nearby orchard whilst the staff tried to get some sort of organisation into operation. This was most unfortunate as it turned out as they had been sprayed by same form of noxious liquid and a large percentage of the school spent the night being very sick.

I was billeted with three other lads in a council house which meant two to a bed. Our hosts were pleasant enough but the wife lacked in the cooking department. We lived on a diet of boiled beef and carrots.

I managed to get transferred to another family - a Mrs. Sawkins who had a grown up son and daughter. The son drove a lorry and the daughter worked in a laundry some way out of town. Also with me was one of the sixth formers - a school prefect. This was fortunate as he fell for the daughter and each night he would go to town and meet her off the lorry transport which brought her back from work. It was pitch black by that time and pupils other than prefects were not allowed out in the dark. However the girl had a friend who rather got in the way of my companions romantic designs so he took me along to escort the friend to her home, this giving him the freedom he desired. My 'affair' with the friend lasted several weeks and in all that time I never saw her face and I had no idea what she looked like. Eventually it all petered out.

I used to go home sometimes at weekends and on one such trip my parents bought me a new bike. The first and only new bike I ever owned. It was a sit up and beg Royal Enfield with a 3 speed gear. Thereafter when I went home at weekends I cycled - a distance of about 45 miles along the A2 through Canterbury, Faversham & Sittingbourne. I would imagine that today that would not be a comfortable ride. I used to stop at Faversham to see my girl friend who lived next door to me at home and whose family had moved to Faversham to see out the war.

I remember the winter of 1939, six foot snow drifts and the sea frozen in Sandwich harbour. One regular journey we kids made was to the beach. It was a mile or more from the town and reachable by bike through a toll road (it was private) or by walking over the golf course -- now very famous. I can remember skating on the ice in the bunkers during the winter. We had regular dog fights in the skies above Kent and the Channel to watch which were interesting. What was more interesting was the flotsam washed up on the beach from the ships that were regularly being sunk. It was amazing how much booty we collected. Pencils and other school material and even paper packed so tightly the sea had not damaged it. We even salvaged a large wooden rudder and carried it --with difficulty - back to town and handed it in to the coastguard hoping to get some salvage money. No chance!

In the spring of 1940 it was decided that as all was quiet on the war front we should move back to Gillingham. We had only been back a few weeks when the Dunkirk mayhem began. Our main evidence of this was the train loads of very tired service men going through the town.

It was then decided that we should go to Wales- We had no choice but to go as it was a vital year in our education and the school closed down in Gillingham. Off we went and finished up in Rhymney in South Wales.

I was extremely fortunate as 1 was billeted with a very pleasant family - the Watkins - consisting of 3 daughters and a dog called Nell. One daughter was a few years older than file, the middle daughter was just a year older and the youngest about 5 years younger. Tile father was well respected as he had a permanent job. Very few people in the village had jobs. He worked as a lorry delivery man for the railway. It was said that only twelve louses in the village had bathrooms. I was lucky - being in one of the twelve. The daughters were good fun and the dog took to me and followed me everywhere. Cattle, sheep, pigs and horses roamed freely through the village at all times. I remember one particular instance when all the neighbours were at their front doors chatting as was common practice when a horse wandered down the street. It went into a house on the opposite side of the road. After a while there was much noise and shouting and it backed out with a straw hat in its mouth. It was know afterwards as the horse with the `At e tude'.

It was a great place for us lads who were all 15/16. On Sunday nights most of the village, or so it seemed, turned out and paraded up and down the main street, known locally as the monkey parade. The girls were very attractive and the lads were keel. The object of the exercise was to pair off and disappear up the hills on either side of town. One side was in England and across tile river it was Wales. We took great pleasure in telling them how grateful they should be to be living in England. Nowadays it is in Wales! We also used to cycle to Tredegar, a small town on the other side of the English hills where there was a swimming pool, to Bargoed down the valley which I presume was in Wales where there was an Italian cafe which sold really lovely ice cream and sometimes to Merthyr Tydfill which was a larger town.

Not long after arriving the Home Guard was formed to supersede the LDV. Many of our teachers were appointed officers and when recruitment began many of us went and joined up. We should have been 17 and our teachers knew how old we were but they signed us up without any argument. As soon as I got my uniform I went with friends to Merthyr and had a proper studio photo taken. I became a signaller which because it meant learning the Morse code proved useful later on.

Most of the parades that followed concerned learning drills and how to use and treat weapons in common usage. However it also included exciting trips across the hills on the back of motorcycles. 1 cannot remember why, but it was good fun! I do remember one exercise. A crack regiment of Scottish soldiers was going to make an attack from Merthyr towards Tredegvr along the top road. 1 was stationed at the side of a bridge with another signaller and a corporal who was in charge. We had a view right across the valley to a pub on the other side. The pub was the Home Guard HQ and we had to warn them by signalling with flags should anything occur. After a long wait we suddenly became aware that the road across the bridge was full of invading troops. Our corporal who was stone deaf had no idea what was happening as he couldn't hear the vehicles which were passing us. We felt that we had to warn HQ so we stood up and in full view of the passing `enemy' signalled our messages. They took no notice of us. I think they passed the pub also. Nobody had worked out how to stop them.

At the end of that term after taking our exams we decided to go back home and reopen the school. My house was closed up as because my father was an engineering officer in the RN - and served in both wars and he had been stationed up in Liverpool on a destroyer on convoy protection duties. My mother had gone up there and got rooms in a private house owned by an elderly single lady. I had spent school holidays up there and been blitzed for my troubles. Two nights under the stairs while all hell broke out around us! She had moved all the valuable stuff down to my aunt's house in Bath for safe keeping. That house was hit by a 1,0001b bomb in the Bath blitz and everything was blown to bits.

Back in Gillingham I went to live with my father's father and sister. My grandfather was 80 and my aunt was a severe asthma sufferer.

As senior pupils and prefects we were given the job of working out the school timetable. We devised a clever plan. We had a large sheet of paper divided into rectangles - each rectangle represented a teaching period. We then cut out other pieces of card some with teacher's names on them and some with class details. These were laid in the rectangles so that no teacher or class was in two places at the same time. It took a long time to do it. We were very pleased with ourselves when it was completed. It just needed to be recorded in writing. As we got up my friend put his blazer back on and the bottom corner of it swept over the board and wiped out at least a third of the week. He was popular!

We realised that we were not going to take the Higher Certificate exams at 18 so we began to look for jobs. We had also continued our service in the Home Guard. My friend George got a job with the War Office Y Group and went to one of the forts which surround the Medway towns for training. The only other jobs available were clerical jobs which I did not want so in December 1941 I joined him. The WOYG was the predecessor to what is now known as GCHQ. It involved learning the Morse code and being able to use it at high speed. Then operatives were sent to various places in the UK where they found, tracked and recorded messages from the enemy. These were sent to Bletchley Park for deciphering. It has been said that this operation reduced the length of war by two years.


The journey to work each day meant a cycle ride of approx. 8 miles each way along the A2. It was quite near to Rochester airfield where among other things Shorts were building the Short Stirling bombers, which since the war ended, have never been in the news. I had not been working very long before first my grandfather died - of old age - followed very shortly by my Aunt from a severe asthma attack.

This left me homeless but my friend George's parents who lived near Rainham offered me a place to live which was very kind but made the journey to work somewhat further.

Eventually we both attained the age of 18 when we were obliged to volunteer for the Royal Signals. As soon as we signed on we were transferred to the reserve as our job was considered to be the more important. It did mean however that should one not make the grade it was straight into uniform.

Having finished our training we were sent to a station in Leicestershire near Loughborough. It was a large mansion called Beau Manor. It was the largest of the stations in the UK and not only catered for about 300 male civilians but also 1,000 ATS girls. As two thirds of the men had wives who were also in the area the 100 single fellows didn't grumble at all. The ATS girls did.

I Should back track here and carry through the Home Guard experience in the Medway area. It was a much more trained and disciplined bunch then we had experienced in Wales. It was in a delicate area likely to be bombed at any time or even invaded. However even in the best organised concerns things do go wrong.

I remember an exercise when we spent the whole very cold night guarding a road along which all invading force was going to travel on its way to the Dockyard. We kept in communication with HQ by lamp. The person receiving the messages was on top of the church tower a mile or two up the hill. On that occasion it was manned by a good ex school friend called Ray Goodman. All went well until our officer had to inform HQ that he had checked all the Home Guards to make sure that they had no ball ammunition on them. He got us to send the message; - Prefix `Huntley' - the code word because the Colonel in command of the operation was called Palmer. Do they still make Biscuits? The message then read `No Balls OK'. All we could get back was `Balls to you too.' In the end the message went by bicycle.

By eight o'clock the next morning we had heard and seen nothing. Later a message came through that the troops had taken the wrong route and had passed us by and gone on their way. We went home!

Another time we were given a demonstration of the `Northover Projector'. This was like a drainpipe about four feet in length, mounted on legs. The idea was that you put a bottle containing inflammable liquid 117 one end and a charge in the other with a lump of rubber between them. One was supposed to fire them at vehicles including tanks. However after a couple of rounds the instructor altered the sight on the far end of the pipe and tried again. The projector became a flamethrower due to the fact that unknown to the instructor the hole into which the sight screwed went right through the pipe and he had left the end of the sight sticking out of the inside surface of the pipe which burst the bottle as it left. This was a really impressive display.

Back to Beau Manor. I got a place to live with a family in Woodhouse Eaves, a delightful village a couple of miles from the Manor. We had to work on 8-hour shifts, 6am-2pm, 2pm-10pm, l0pm-6am, which could have been a nuisance for the family but they put up with it and treated me very well.

Sometime later they had an increase in the family and I moved in with an elderly gentleman and his wife who worked at the Manor.

Outside working hours we spent a lot of time in sporting pursuits. Tennis courts were available in the working area as was table tennis. We went boating on the River Soar and played hockey for the works team. There was also swimming available in Loughborough and a cinema with a very large coffee lounge where we all used to gather and pass the time.

Beau Manor was an interesting site. It had acres of grounds attached to it and round the main very large field they had built brick huts to look like cowsheds, stables, etc and it was in there the work was done. The main building was the administrative centre and near it was the canteen, a very large building, which was mainly glass, clad and designed to look like a greenhouse. We also used the canteen as a dance hall. We held dances about once a week. As in the beginning very few of the lads could dance an ATS corporal called Hilary Fry took its in hand and ran classes of instruction. On VE day I was on the after-loon shift so we downed tools and retired to the canteen to socialise in general and dance.

One memorable day, although we didn't know it, they brought an enigma message machine in for us to look at. It had been captured in Africa and still had desert sand in its crevices. Later on we were told that an attempt was made to make these machines but they were never successful.

Practical joking was always part of the job. People often fell asleep whilst chained to their set and this offered good opportunities for pranks. One regular one was to switch the set off and put the volume up. Then the sleeping one would be woken with urgency and wonder what was going on. Finding it switched off they would switch it back on and blast their ear drums. If the sleeping one was wearing open top sandals a match was inserted in the side of the shoe and set alight. That woke them up!

I remember being very embarrassed one shift. The morning shift came in and left me sleeping there whilst everyone went home. When I woke about 30 minutes later much laughter erupted from the new shift as I crept out.

Our Home Guard members were all working in the station. On one exercise six of us were trying to cross a field without being seen. There was a largish herd of young cattle in the field and by the time we got half way across they decided to investigate us. We began to move at an increasing rate towards the gate, which was some distance away, and so did the cattle. We just made it but secrecy was no longer possible.

Another time we trained hard for a relay race at Loughboro College against top class teams - so we were told - from other areas. When we lined up at the start there was only one other team - a crack RAF team of PTI's. They won the race by about half an hour. Our commanding officer was attending a high-powered dinner that night and gave a short speech. He mentioned the race and how proud he was that his men had come in second. Fortunately nobody asked how many teams took part.

Another interesting weapon we used was the Bombard. This was a metal spike mounted on legs which had a firing pin in it. The bomb looked like an ordinary bomb dropped by planes but its spine was a tube with a charge in it. It was slotted over the spike and fired. It went a great distance and exploded with great force.

Another time we were introduced to the Tommy gun of gangster fame. We were in a quarry firing at a rock wall. The squad grouped behind the fellow firing the gun. The officer said something to one of the lads just as he was about to fire. Without thinking he swung round. The squad hit the deck as one man - including the officer.

Hand grenade practice with live grenades was also somewhat tense as some of the lads couldn't get the hang of the method of throwing and the grenade tended to go up rather than out. Fortunately the cover was adequate.

Often when the Germans were being beaten out of an area, for example North Africa, they had no time to encode their messages and sent them in plain language which made the job interesting which in the main it was not.

VE day I was an afternoons. We spent most of the shift in the canteen dancing with the ATS to two old records on a wind up gramophone.

Immediately after that new target stations became more easterly orientated. All the lads who were in the reserve were informed that they would be enlisted and sent to the Far East to relieve troops out there. Before they had time to do this it was VJ day.

In between VE & VJ day a group of about ten of us decided to camp out instead of living in lodgings. We had a largish tent and put it up in an adjacent field to our workplace.
The first day we were on afternoons so we set the camp up in the morning, climbed over the fence and went to work. When we got back after ten at night the camp was completely squashed. We hadn't noticed a herd of cattle at the far end of the field and they had been over to investigate.

We moved fields and all went well thereafter. Some Italian POW's were working each day in a small wood nearby and they were piling up logs for burning as part of their work. This saved us a lot of work and kept our campfire burning well throughout the day and night. As it was summer we dammed a small stream, which ran past the camp and used it for washing and bathing. We cooked a lot of our own food but also used the works canteen a lot to save time. The ATS girls on night duty used to come over and cook our breakfast before waking us up. Many visited us for all sorts of reasons. When VJ day came we deserted our posts and made our way to London and spent the day and night celebrating. Then I went home and reported in sick. My friend George being an honest lad just went home and got reprimanded for leaving his post.

We all went into the army at the same time - about 40 of us. We went to Huddersfield and spent the first night in an old blanket factory. We were expected to keep it clean and with a bit of luck the floorboards had gaps between them. You could see the next floor down through them so sweeping the floor was a simple task.

We were then sent to another old factory in Otley and after a few days sent on to Wellington Barracks near Lichfield for initial training.

That began my army career which is yet another chapter in this fascinating saga.