World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                          Eric Johnson 

The War Years from Adolescence to Adult

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Eric W. Johnson, Jean Durnford, Stan Pain
Location of story: Surbiton, Surrey, Hampton, Middlesex, Betteshanger
Unit name: Air Raid Precautions (ARP), Bevin Boy
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 Eric W. Johnson.

The War Years from Adolescence to Adult
Eric W. Johnson

In 1938 as an only child, still at school aged 14 and living in Surbiton, Surrey, I volunteered as a part time messenger with the newly formed Air Raid Precautions (ARP) organisation (later to become Civil Defence). I attended training courses on poison gas and how to deal with incendiary bombs.

In September 1939, I was on holiday with my mother at Clacton-on-Sea, and we youngsters all got together near the pier helping to fill sandbags from the beach and loading them on to a lorry on the promenade. When it was fully loaded, we all scrambled aboard and were taken to the local Fire Station where we helped to unload before going back to the beach for the next load.

Returning home to Surbiton, my father had been busy making blackout screens so that no chinks of light were visible in the blacked-out streets. Being still at school, I used to take my homework to the ARP Ambulance Depot where I was on Messenger duty on alternate nights.

Air raids started in earnest in 1940, and my schooling was so badly interrupted with time being spent in the air raid shelters, that when the Venner Time Switch Co. offered to my school a job as a Costing Clerk in their local factory, I successfully applied. Shortly after starting work, the factory was taken over by Siemens. At the time I felt it a bit odd to be working for a German Company based in England, but presumably there was no connection with the German counterpart. The factory was producing relay switches for magnetic mines. Earlier, I had applied to the Post Office (GPO) for employment as a trainee telephone engineer and when the GPO offered me a vacancy a year later, I accepted and changed jobs. I remained with GPO/PO/BT until my retirement in 1984.

My father bought a Morrison air raid shelter. Basically a very strong steel table with wire mesh sides and an integral spring mattress. This we erected in our dining room so that we could all sleep together in some safety during the raids.

By 1943, having successfully completed my initial training, I became the maintenance engineer in Molesey telephone exchange beside the Thames in Hampton, Middlesex. The job was looked upon as being of national importance and as a result I was 'reserved' up to the age of 20.

Air raids, flying bombs and V2 rockets continued. Fortunately, Surbiton escaped the worst of the bombing, but on one occasion, the telephone cable to a remote part of the borough had been severed leaving the Air Raid Warden's post near Burnt Stub Zoo, now known as Chessington World of Adventure, without communication. With enemy aircraft overhead, searchlights turning night into day and anti-aircraft batteries in full action, sending lumps of shrapnel whizzing down, it was a pretty hairy four mile cycle ride and one which I will never forget.

By this time, I had fallen in love with a telephone operator, Jean Durnford, and despite the hazards, together we enjoyed a fairly normal courtship. We went to the cinema, local dances and travelled to London, attending shows in the West End, ignoring the sirens, as did the majority of others.

In January 1945, my father died suddenly from a heart attack whilst waiting for a train on Surbiton station. Just two weeks later, I went off to the Kentish coalfields as a Bevin Boy. Between Christmas 1944 and January 1945 my mother went from looking after a family of three to a lonely widow. The only consolation for her was knowing that I would not be sent abroad with the armed forces.

Arriving for training at Chislet Colliery, near Canterbury, on my first day, I found it buried deep in snow. It was so bad that the railway branch line was totally blocked, so that the coal being produced could not be removed and the colliery was at a standstill. We were all handed shovels and told to `dig'. A life-long school friend from Surbiton, Stan Pain was already working at the colliery, as a Bevin Boy so I had a mate from the start.

The comprehensive training course taught us about the haulage system, working on the coalface as well as a bit about geology. We also worked out in the gym and played football to make us all physically fit for the job we were about to do.

At the end of a month, I was sent to Betteshanger colliery between Deal and Sandwich. It was owned by Pearson, Dorman Long and had a compliment of some 3000 men. We worked in three shifts, each of 7 ½ hours, leaving ½ an hour for winding men up and down. The morning and night shifts were coaling shifts and the afternoon used for repair, moving conveyors and rail tracks in readiness for the next following coaling shifts. My first month at Betteshanger was spent working on the surface, much of the time on the picking belts. The full tubs of coal coming to the surface were weighed twice, once by the colliery weighman and then the check weigh man. The latter being paid by the miners, to ensure accuracy and fair play. The tubs were then rotated in a tippler to be emptied. The coal mixed with rock fell on to a series of grading screens which segregated it by size. The lumps finally landing on steel conveyor belts, where we lads had the job of picking out the lumps of rock before the remaining coal was carried to the waiting railway trucks beneath. It was the most boring dirtiest and dustiest job in the pit.

At the beginning of April, I descended the shaft at Betteshanger for the first time, 2400 feet descent in one minute!! It felt as if the floor had gone. The cage had two decks, each carrying 60 men, but with 2,000 miners to wind in the half hour between shifts there was no time to lose.

My job, not far from the bottom of the shaft, was to ensure that there was a steady stream of empty tubs going inbye to the coalface and full tubs dispatched outbye to the pit bottom. The work, by comparison with a telephone exchange was heavy, but a good bunch of mates, made life quite enjoyable. It was early summer and we spent a lot of time together on the beach.

From Deal to Surbiton was not a difficult journey by rail, which meant that I was able to get home on alternate long weekends to visit both my mother and Jean. (Wound up 6.30am Saturday after a night shift and down 6.30 am Monday on morning shift). Some weekends, Jean was able to visit me in Deal. On VE day, I caught an early train home to celebrate the end of the war with my folk.

The colliers working at the face were paid at piecework rate, and two weeks before a Bank Holiday, they always worked extra hard to have some spare cash for the holiday. With all the extra coal being produced, the haulage system was working to full capacity when suddenly from around the corner at the pit bottom, came a terrific crash soon followed by a huge cloud of dust. We all went to investigate and I'll never forget the scene that met my eyes. The onsetter, a man with very poor eyesight, whose job it was to load the full tubs on to the cage and signal it away, had failed to uncouple the tubs already loaded from those behind, so that when the cage lifted, tubs were hanging out at the back, held by their couplings. The engine driver thought that he had an extra heavy load turned on more power and in so doing broke the winding rope, allowing the cage to crash to the bottom. Miraculously nobody was hurt, but the pit was closed for almost a week for repair. We lads who were weekly paid, got our full wages, but the colliers were less lucky. The spring time weather was beautiful and the days on the beach were super!!

In mid July, I became trapped in a journey of tubs heading for the pit bottom. I suffered a broken femur (thigh bone) and spent the next 20 weeks in hospital in Leatherhead. I enjoyed VJ day from my hospital bed. I was home about a week before Christmas. On many evenings, Jean cycled to the hospital to visit me. By May, I had more or less recovered from the accident, and was sent for examination by an army doctor who took the view that I had already done my bit towards the war effort and discharged me Grade 3 on principle.

A few weeks later I was back working for the GPO. For some unexplained reason in the autumn of 1946, Jean wanted to cool our romance and we parted in early 1947 after four happy years together.