World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            Peter Clarke

WARTIME MEMORIES - The Day War Broke Out (Apologies to Rob Wilton)

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Peter Clarke
Location of story: Burnham-on-Crouch, Essex

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


The Day War Broke Out (Apologies to Rob Wilton)
Peter Clarke

When war was declared, my friends and I were ‘fiveish’ and just beginning to find our feet. We were not unusual in any respect, just a normal set of scruffy country kids living in the small town of Burnham-on-Crouch in Essex. I can't say I remember the actual start of things, but without a doubt as the years ticked by, we became increasingly aware. By 1945 we were avidly plotting the advances of the Allied Forces towards heartland Berlin.

Our small town was, and still is, an important yachting centre on the East Coast, certainly strategically placed as a point to invade from mainland Europe, or indeed, as happened subsequently, to prepare an attack.

The first infringement on our freedom, as we saw it, was the virtual take-over by the navy and army. Many of our favourite knock about places within an area of half a mile or so of our riverfront, together with the `posh' yacht clubs, were requisitioned for the duration, to enable the eventual invasion fleet of small landing craft to be built up. Probably consisting of around five hundred or so barges. They seemed to fill our river opposite the town. They were all in an area a mile long and half a mile wide. To prevent any undesirables or foreign agents entering the restricted area, armed sentries stood guard at the entrances on the quay front. We, of course, used to swim a lot in the river and consistently encroached and entered forbidden territory. I can safely say that we caused more harassment to our own side than the enemy ever did.

A few hundred yards away, and parallel with the river, the main road ran. Generally speaking this was quiet, but occasionally frantic when military exercises involving armoured cars, Bren gun carriers and lorries, together with, it seemed, thousands of soldiers dashing around urgently doing things. My father had a men's outfitter’s shop overlooking the town centre. This made a wonderful grandstand from which to watch the various events, parades and shenanigans, that went on from time to time. I well remember leaning out of an upstairs window as a German Messerschmidt beat up the town, flying not much above roof top height, followed by my mother's frantic yanking on my collar to get my head in.

The Battle of Britain seemed to take place immediately above us. It was all very exciting. However, I don't suppose my parents thought so at the time. All we could really see, of course, were the endless high altitude vapour trails wheeling and looping in almost impossible shapes. Intermittently, one could hear the rat-tat-tat of machine guns in a war once removed it seemed. It was not unusual, when the London blitz started, to see German bombers trailing smoke, high tailing it for home. When they sometimes crashed we were not allowed near the site, but eventually the remains were picked up. If the low loaders carrying the bits and pieces paused in our High Street, this provided a great opportunity for all us lads to pinch bits. It's an extraordinary thing it was one of those events that caused me to begin to realise what `war' really was about, that men were actually dying. It was a small piece of fuel pipe and a gland, burnt and acrid smelling, tucked triumphantly into my pocket. This piece of material, I began to realise, was made by our enemy and fitted to one of their warplanes, which then tried to kill us. I grew up considerably that day.

Our town didn't experience the bombing that London did, but as I indicated earlier, if enemy planes were hit, they made a run for it, sometimes jettisoning their bombs whilst fleeing. Such a scenario brought about our little town’s only bombing. One or two roads were destroyed, killing if I remember correctly, eight or nine people. Not many compared with London, but certainly enough to raise our anxieties. There was a rush to survey the damage. Dad returned with five or six fins from incendiary bombs and one, yes one whole unexploded specimen, about fourteen inches long and two inches wide. He kept it for years under the counter in his shop, displaying it occasionally to demonstrate how he had won the war. Many years later I scraped some material from the casing and threw the dust onto the fire. The resultant flare up almost set the chimney alight. Thankfully he got rid of it after that, as the entire casing was pure magnesium.

Another memory was the funeral cortege of a German bomber crew, who died when their plane came down. A similar type of recollection was when the covered body of a local man was brought ashore, having exploded a German sea mine further up the river.

Food was a problem to many during the war, and our community was no different to most I imagine. Rationing of food and small portions seemed quite the norm, and although we could certainly have done with more, we survived on what was available. Any complaints were generally met with what became the standard chant from our butcher, "Don't you know there's a war on?" Generally, living in the country meant that food shortages at least were not so acute. We always kept six hens in the backyard and my father had an allotment, so I never remember being hungry. Dad and his mates, together with yours truly, spent many a Sunday ferreting for rabbits in the countryside. Twenty or more were usually caught and this took care of our protein requirements. Of course, we had a couple of illicit pigs, which were housed down on bleak adjacent marshland. It was actually illegal to keep unregistered pigs, so we all kept mum about it. When finally slaughtered, they were cut up and left to pickle in our bath. It sounds a bit messy maybe, but when the chips are down, survival is the name of the game. A Thames barge ran aground somewhere near the mouth of the river, word got around that she was loaded with unrefined sugar and it was rationed and in short supply. A flotilla of small boats rowed by locals, decided to investigate. In a scene reminiscent of `Whiskey Galore', they returned loaded to the gunwales with this coarse raw sugar, which lasted us for the rest of the war. Our next-door neighbour was the local grocer and a number of quick deals went on over the back wall, swooping small amounts, of say cheese with items from Dad's shop, say a pair of socks. These were highlight days. However, it was not an everyday occurrence, as the grocer had to work on his points system and Dad on coupons to get replacement stock.

A naval officer brought my father a seal, which he had shot and Dad was able to skin and preserve the pelt for him. As the motto was `waste not want not', the remaining carcass was cooked up, mixed with meal and fed to our hens. The resultant, almost blood red yolked eggs were not wasted. The blubber was rendered down to oil, rather like the Eskimos I suppose. This he doused his gardening boots with, "To make them waterproof," he said. The trouble was that anyone could smell him coming two hundred yards downwind. He was never allowed to forget this.

Another incredible escapade was the shooting of a swan, quite illegal then as it is today. His reasoning, in times of emergency, i.e. the war, what was good enough for Henry VIII was good enough for him. My abiding memory is of him sitting in our small kitchen, waist deep in feathers, which even covered his hat. The cooked bird was an absolute disaster. Black, tough and stringy - ugh! Since then swans have been completely safe in our families estimation, whether legal or illegal.

As the war dragged on, D-Day came and went, and after trekking down to the riverside we were amazed to see what had been a very crowded anchorage, was now suddenly empty. All those hundreds of landing craft had gone to France and the beginning of the end was in sight.

Another pastime our `friend' Adolph dreamt up was of war winning secret weapons. The two most visible, and felt by us, were his V-1 and V-2, or the doodlebug and the rocket. I suppose the doodlebug, using probably the first operational jet engine, was an unmanned bomb, fired from ramps in France, aimed mainly at London. They were not very precisely targeted and crashed when their fuel ran out. Our town was on their flight path to London and we generally ignored them as they passed over. Their engine note was quite markedly specific - a rather grim rasping roar. When that suddenly ceased whoever was underneath could expect to be blown to smithereens. Whilst I was in the bath one night one of these fiendish things passed over, the engine stuttered and for one horrible moment I thought I might become a war statistic. Thankfully that was not to be as the thing picked up again to devastate some other poor individual further up the line, this was my only near miss.

Towards the end of the war we began to see the arrival of German and Italian prisoners for agricultural work. I don't know quite what I expected to see; perhaps two headed ogres with tails - but no. Do you know they looked quite normal, and after a while I realised they WERE quite normal.

The end of the war was felt to be a tremendous relief, no more rationing, everything would be as it was before the wretched war. It wasn't quite like that. There was a tremendous street party for us kids on VE Day and I can tell you to this day where I sat and what we ate. The street, so recently before throbbing to the sounds of the military, was back to its usual quiet self. Areas which had been forbidden to us, were now open territory for exploring - a new adventure. Our gang survived but many men and women, who had been our neighbours for four years, did not. War was not quite the lark we thought it was at the time. People get killed or injured, families are broken up, nobody really wins, and everyone loses, don't they?