I couldn't let the month of September slip away without marking the beginning of World War Two, when the Royal Air Force came into its own. As families gathered around the wireless to listen in awe and dread to the words of the Prime Minister, young men of the day would have had no knowledge at all of the part they were to play, and vital roles waiting for them in RAF 100 Group, under Bomber Command. Through ensuing years, boys quickly became men ... ordinary people doing extraordinary things they never dreamed they could do. History was in the making, and they were a valued part of it, showing tenacity, wisdom, courage, strength, which went way beyond their years. As the 100th year of the R.A.F. approaches in 2018, I remain passionate that these heroes are not forgotten, but remain remembered in gratitude and love for giving us the freedom we have today.
'I will always remember the day when war was announced.
It is a memory that stays sharp and clear in my mind'
Jean May, veteran
The day yawned into wakefulness. A new day – yet a day like no other. People were to remember this day for the rest of their lives.
A young girl stirred as a golden ray of sunshine slipped between the curtains to fall soft on her face. The breeze crept in through the open window, swishing folds of material this way, then that, mimicking the girl’s thoughts: ‘Shall I … shan’t I?’ The idea of keeping her eyes closed, catching back hold of the dream was a sweet one. Yet, even as that crazy idea caught hold, she couldn’t stop a snake of fear slithering into this perfect day.
‘What if …?’
Peeking through the dark lines of lashes, eyes blurred with sleep, her gaze fell on the diary she kept at the side of her bed. Within, lay a myriad of emotions, secret thoughts, private fears, sweet memories to cherish. She was reminded of another lazy hazy Sunday not long ago, erupting into a joyous explosion of excitement as, crying with joy she celebrated her 21st birthday.
Yet even as the month of April played out, filled with unexpected surprises, dark shadows were already creeping in to eclipse laughter and happiness with uncertainty and foreboding as unfamiliar phrases spilled across the news:
Conscription has come!
All men between the ages of 20-21 years …
War? It sounded like a death knell. Who would dare strike against the people of a country she loved? Great Britain wasn’t a divided nation. Countries admired and respected its freedom, its standing in the world. Her thoughts wrapped around her family, wanting to hold and protect them. What would it mean for her two younger brothers? Without a father’s guiding hand, they had no-one to talk with and share. She needed to be the strong one, not just for them, but for her widowed mother who wasn’t in the best of health.
Two days later, she noted in her diary that more men were being ‘Called up’, and ‘Correspondence Course started between Hitler and Chamberlain’.
In the interceding months life became increasingly uncertain. Everyone had a hunted look, speaking in whispers, eyes looking furtively around as if expecting to sight an as yet unknown enemy. Paranoia was setting in. Who was friend? Who was the enemy? No-one was certain any more. Life was changing. People were changing. Yet nothing of any substance had happened. Her fervent hope was that everything would return to normal and life go on as before. But it was impossible to ignore news leaking from newspapers, wireless broadcasts, the mouths of people she’d known most of her life.Thrusting aside the bed covers, she grabbed the curtains, dragging them apart. As the sun’s rays caught the outline of her face, her mother’s voice downstairs diverted her attention, urgently rallying the family into action. Sunday morning. They were meant to be preparing for church. Her mother rarely missed a service.
But something didn’t feel right.
With a gnawing sense of foreboding, she slipped on a dressing gown to join her two brothers. They were grouped around the wireless which, instead of the usual soothing strains of music, listeners were advised to stand by for an announcement of national importance. The house stilled. Her mother’s hands clasped the worn black covers of her Bible.
Waiting was the worst, not knowing what might come.
Every fifteen minutes, listeners were told the Prime Minister would be making an announcement at 11.15. All eyes swivelled to the clock on the mantle, then slid around each familiar expectant face. At least they were together to share this dramatic moment marking an ending and a beginning of … something they didn’t yet know.
Music interjected at fifteen minute intervals. Presenters urged listeners to stay tuned. There was no mistaking now the urgency of what was to follow.
A talk: ‘How to make the most of tinned foods’.
At exactly 11.15 on 3 September 1939, a date and time marked indelibly on their hearts; the BBC Home Service relayed words spoken quiet and firm into thousands of homes around the country:
'I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that, unless we hear from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently ... this country is at war with Germany.'
The words droned on, while, following these words of Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain; King George VI spoke to the Nation from Buckingham Palace:
'In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself. For the second time in the lives of most of us … we are at war ...'
The King’s delivery was calm, dignified, measured and heartfelt. There was no trace of his renowned stammer. He held the respect and admiration of his people. No-one doubted the sincerity and emotion with which both the King and the Prime Minister had spoken.
As the words died, their echo repeating in the minds of listeners, the first air raid sirens of the war began to wail … a steady rising and falling signal acting as a warning of imminent danger. At 11.30, an unidentified aircraft had been sighted passing over No. 1 Observer Group at Maidstone flying at 5,000 feet, moving north-east into Kent. Areas were on Red Alert (it should have been yellow!) The aircraft was identified as French. It had no required Flight Plan filed. Only when this was confirmed did a second siren sound at 11.50, a single, continuous note heralding ‘All Clear’.
At approximately 11.35, an air raid wailed in the Northern Region of Britain. More than one aircraft had been reported off Berwick moving in a south-westerly direction. At 11.39 the ‘All Clear’ sounded. A further Alert sounded at 11.40 covering parts of Scotland, with the ‘All Clear’ shortly after.
Following the news broadcast on the wireless and dreadful wail of sirens, the family stood quiet, still, silent, holding one another close for support. As they separated reluctantly, the young 21 year old girl broke free, unable to contain a swelling tide of conflicting emotions, threatening an outpouring of grief for England’s ‘green and pleasant land’. In a daze, she thrust the back door open wide, reaching for the fields beyond, running through lush meadows awash with colour and movement. Hadn’t Nature heard the news?
She tried desperately to outrun the news and what might follow after, collapsing in a heap on a grassy bank. The sky was a perfect powder blue. All around her was tranquil and still. Yet everything suddenly seemed so much more … colours became vibrant, the air more pure, birdsong sweeter, smells deliciously poignant and strong. Thoughts and fears were at odds with the world. Life was surreal. As she sat under the same sun that spilled through her window earlier, she knew with absolute certainty that the world was in a state of flux. War was inevitable. On a public and private basis, already it was striking at the heart of the country - its people, their homes, everything and everyone they knew and loved.
During the nine o’clock news that evening, a well-known announcer, Bruce Belfrage, came on air, offering a reassuring presence in an effort to dispel the fears of the people:
'The following advice is given: to keep off the streets as much as possible; to carry a gas mask always; to make sure all members of the household have on them their name and address clearly written; to sew a label on children’s clothing so that they cannot pull it off …'
Bruce had started his career as an actor, later becoming a broadcaster in the early days of 2LO at Savoy Hill, joining the BBC in 1935 as a casting director and later a news reader and announcer. He was present just over one year later as Broadcasting House was first bombed at eight o’clock on the evening of 15 October 1940. A 500 pound delayed-action high explosive bomb destroyed the BBC switchboard before the gram library on the fifth floor was hit. Staff tried to move the bomb, but it exploded. Seven BBC staff were killed. Parts of the fifth and sixth floor frontage of Broadcasting House were blown into Portland Place and studios were demolished. However, although the explosion was clearly audible to listeners, amidst the carnage and covered with plaster and soot, Bruce continued to read the news as if nothing had happened.
On 3 September 1939 his voice came as a familiar, reassuring presence, although his words belied his manner.
Already it had begun. Freedom was restricted. Rules and regulations were set for the future and the enemy hadn’t yet reached their shores. This was the first day of many … yet a day like no other. People around the world would remember this day … where they were, who they were with, what they were doing … for the rest of their lives.
|John Beeching, 18 yrs old|
'I was born in Lambeth, well within the sound of Bow Bells which, in 1941, the Germans decided were superfluous and removed them with explosives. We were close to the airfield, part of 11 Group Fighter Command, frequently coming under the attention of Herman's Luftwaffe, and finally the recipient of V-2 rockets which were nasty and upset Mum because you could never hear the damned things coming, being supersonic, unlike the V-1s, which sounded like a motorbike. I left elementary school the day I was 14. People adjusted to a wartime environment; we knew stuff we were used to just wasn't there any more so in the end, we stopped complaining and got on with life. I left Britain in 1947 and went back to Canada. In doing so, I missed bread rationing and so forth, because thanks to the U.S. Lend Lease policy, Britain was flat broke with enormous debts which took many, many years to recover, sort of.
The day war was first announced, it was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I was sitting on our back doorstep on a sunny Sunday morning, 3 September 1939, when I hear Neville Chamberlain quietly inform us we were at war with Germany. We Beechings are a fairly phlegmatic lot and there was no wailing or beating of chests. About an hour later sirens went for the first time, which turned out to be a completely false alarm; they didn't sound again in anger for eight or nine months. In that time, Dad and I dug a large regulation-sized hole in the back garden, and installed our Government issued Anderson shelter.
I remember my dear old Dad saying: ‘What a waste of time this is going to be!’ Little did he know we were destined to spend nearly every night in it for months during the blitz which necessitated him building five bunks into its confined space, until one night, Mum said: ‘I've had enough of this, I am going to sleep in my own bed and if we get hit, we might just as easily get hit here.’ We accepted her cold logic and all trooped back to more comfortable sleeping arrangements, although we did have a couple of pretty hairy occasions, particularly when Mum woke us during the night as the wind could be heard undulating through a parachute mine coming down near us. It never went off. This was towards Autumn 1941 and I enlisted in the RAF in August that year, although I wasn't called upon to serve until April l942. By that time we had all become pretty acclimatised to wartime conditions; black-outs, no petrol, clothing rationing, everything rationed in fact. No coal in the winter, poor old Mum queuing for hours at the shops for our meagre bit of meat - six pennyworth a week on each ration-book. It was quite a business, I can tell you, and an environment which cannot be adequately described today, or for that matter, even imagined. Before enlistment, I was working a 72-hour week and elected to stay on permanent night-shift rather than chop and change all the time. Not much of a life for a seventeen-year-old. But we got through it, although, inevitably, it changed us.'
Roy Smith, a veteran who served under Bomber Command in RAF 100 Group, 199 Squadron, based at North Creake; remembers:
'Although the possibility of a second World War was often featured in the national press several months prior to 1939, it was not taken very seriously by a large percentage of the population until 1939 when Germans sent troops into Austria and Poland and, in spite of our efforts to persuade them to abandon their actions, this had no effect.
The first positive indication that we, the British, had to face the inevitability of a Second World War was on 3 September 1939 when we declared war on Germany.
On that day, I was at the home of my special school friend at Hornsey. An air raid shelter, known as an Anderson Shelter, had recently been delivered to all houses with gardens in the area and we, Len, his father Bert, and older brother Ron, were in the process of excavating a hole in which the shelter had to be erected. The hole was approximately six foot, six inches long and three foot, six inches wide. It needed to be about two foot, six inches deep. The heavy gauge corrugated galvanized iron sheets were bolted together to form a housing with a back panel and two narrow panels located at the front, leaving a narrow space in the centre for access. The earth from the excavation was then shovelled over the top.
Halfway through the building operation, the air raid siren sounded, which led everyone to increase their efforts, anticipating we were about to be bombed. In fact, a considerable period elapsed before any serious raid in Autumn 1940.
In early 1941, my friend Len and I decided we could no longer remain civilians and should join one of the main three Forces. After some discussion we decided on the Navy.
Eventually we presented ourselves at a Recruitment Office. At this time, I was working at the Standard Telephone Co. at Southgate on the inspection of completed telephone exchange equipment. This type of work was considered to be important to the war effort and as such I was told the only way of getting into one of the Services was to volunteer for aircrew. Len was accepted for service in the Navy and called up after a short period. I filled in appropriate documents to join the RAF as aircrew and was accepted in May 1941, but was not called up until September.
In the meantime, we moved from Hornsey to Harrow and I spent a few months in the inspection department of a small engineering firm in Wembley, checking on the tolerances of armament components. This was an extremely monotonous job demanding no special skills, but considered by the Powers-that-Be to be essential to the war effort.
I am not sure now if I had to go before a Selection Board in May or September 1941 to explain why I wanted to enlist and what role I wished to be trained for. Most interviewees wanted to be fighter pilots – but I stated a preference to be a Navigator. Most Navigators finished up in Coastal or Bomber Command …'
On the day war was declared, Hugh at eleven years old, was walking near St George’s Church where he and his brother Jimmy were members of the Boys’ Brigade and played in the Bugle Band. A young girl of a similar age ran out of her house shouting to them: ‘We are at War!’ To Hugh it didn’t mean very much. After all, nothing around him had changed. He continued with the rest of his day as he would any other Sunday:
'Early on in the war, my brother Jimmy at eighteen years old joined the Home Guard. They met in Stalybridge, Lancashire (now Greater Manchester). One night, they came to collect him from home and he was gone for three days. I learned after, he and the rest of the Home Guard Platoon were issued with rifles and live ammunition and taken to Salford. The area had been bombed. Windows of shops had been blown out. They were ordered to guard against looters and to ‘shoot on sight’. It isn’t known if they had to carry this out or not!'
Soon after, brother Jimmy volunteered for the RAF and commenced initial training at Blackpool. His memories were always of immense pride for his brother who didn’t talk of his role in Bomber Command or where he was stationed. The only hint the family had about his whereabouts came unexpectedly in a letter, where the words unexpectedly appeared: 'See a fine lady upon a white horse.' Speaking about it after, the family assumed the implication was to the well-known nursery rhyme: ‘Ride a cock horse to BANBURY Cross …’ Maybe Banbury then?
One morning, he woke to find his brother sitting on his bed. He had arrived home on Leave and immediately Jimmy was throwing his arms around him, he loved him so much. Always, he made time for him during their brief time together during Leaves. They would go to the cinema and Jimmy would howl with laughter at comedy films they saw together, no doubt a welcome release from the nightmare of missions and war.
Stalybridge is at a higher level than Manchester, in the foothills of the Pennines. Hugh recalls standing outside at night, watching searchlights pierce the sky during bombing raids later in the war. Even though no bombs dropped on Stalybridge, two fell near, one in Hurst between Ashton and Stalybridge, another in Glodwick, Oldham, the next town to Ashton. Hugh and his friends would go collecting small pieces of shrapnel which he kept in an Oxo-cube tin.
An air raid shelter was built behind the house where Hugh’s mother and sister lived, his father having died earlier. They spent nights in the shelter when the siren sounded. To Hugh, it was exciting. He didn’t have to go to bed. Enamel buckets filled with hot tea would appear for everyone. It was an adventure which went on and on, not knowing what might happen next. In time, their next door neighbour built them an Anderson shelter in their own garden so they had one to themselves … their own private den!
'I think it was about 1942 when a young evacuee named Donald McCrill from Surrey came to stay for the duration of the war. He was eleven years old. I being fourteen or fifteen by then tried to be ‘Big Brother’ to him. When Jimmy came home on Leave, he and his friend Walter Collins who had joined the Navy, took Donald out in a rowing boat on the boating lake at Stamford Park nearby, pretending to fall about in the boat to cheer him up.
During ‘War Weapons Week’, a parade was held, collections made. Stalybridge Old Band, one of the oldest in the country, struck up a rousing March and the Home Guard made up of elderly men, marched smartly and proudly behind.
I also remember Ladysmith Barracks at Ashton, once home to the Manchester Regiment, housing Italian Prisoners of War …'
Hugh’s wife, Eunice, remembers she was just eight years old when she heard Chamberlain’s announcement on the wireless. She is unable to recall now how she felt, probably being too young to realise the implications. Like Hugh, her day continued as usual. What she does remember, however, is her mother’s instruction: 'Go somewhere safe in the event of an air raid!'
Safe? Where’s safe? What’s going to happen?
A shelter was built in the next street, but the family never actually went there. She wondered as her mother gathered all the ‘peg rugs’ in the house – rugs she made herself from scraps of old clothing – to lay over coal in the ‘coal hole’, a cupboard under the stairs. They only spent two nights there, but a very cramped and uncomfortable couple of nights she remembers, trying to sleep on lumpy piles of coal!
Later in the war, like Hugh, she recalls air raid sirens and the ‘crumping’ sound as bombs were dropped on Manchester and Salford Docks.
After an operation to remove her appendix, her bed was brought downstairs to the living room and as she recovered, she knitted tiny vests for war-orphaned babies and children, the white wool and knitting needles having been sent to her from school.
'I still remember the pattern even now, all these years on: knit 2, purl 2, knit 2, purl 2 … As I moved on to Lakes Road Secondary School, my ‘war work’ continued. Along a wall in a classroom was a camouflage net in the process of being made. Again there was a pattern to follow and different colours of wide fabric strips of brown, green and beige to be woven in a set way. The girls who chose to do this in their lunch hour or any other spare time were awarded merit marks. I came top of that Merit Award Chart twice with merits of 90+. Once one net was complete, a new one would appear to be worked on.'
Eunice’s family didn’t have much money. Her mother had a warm winter coat made out of a ‘very nice blanket’, made by a local lady known for her ability to make nice coats in this way. Her father was in the Territorial Army and he was called up at the start of the war. Eunice recalls visiting him in Birkenhead, standing at the side of the Mersey on a cold winter’s day, not feeling the chill due to her lovely warm coat.
'There was a Savings Scheme at school and the interest went towards the war effort. I would collect all the small, spare amounts of money from my Aunties and take that and all their individual books to school to be paid in.
Then from the age of fourteen, I had a job in a local greengrocers shop, working every Friday after school and during school holidays. It lasted for three years. At the end of the war I was given two precious bananas, and I remember so well my mother making one last for three meals for me, giving me a third with bread before carefully putting the skin back in place each time!'
Eric Drewitt was to become a veteran of 23 Squadron, stationed at RAF Little Snoring, serving under RAF 100 Group, Bomber Command; who moved to live in New Zealand after the war. He was 14 years old when war was declared on 3 September 1939. His home then was in Sutton-on-Trent, eight miles north of Newark-on-Trent. Eric’s father had been recalled to the RAF one week previous which proved something significant was happening; and posted to 93MU Swinderby, later to be re-named 93MU Norton Disney. It was a bomb dump.
'My most impressive memory of that fateful Sunday, 3 September, was seeing a flight of Wellingtons roaring over our house – very exciting, especially for a boy who had already made up his mind to join the RAF on leaving school. (I spent many hours cycling to Cranwell, sitting on the roadside, watching Tiger Moths doing ‘circuits and bumps’, the grand old Vickers Armstrong Valentia of the Wireless School and most of all the wonderful Empire Air Day display held there.) How differently things turned out!
Like everyone else, we did all the things we were obliged to do, including digging a hole in the garden for an air-raid shelter which promptly filled up with water! I was a keen church-bell ringer and was most put out when we could no longer ring them; they were to be rung only in the event of an invasion which, thankfully, never occurred.
The most significant effect of the war on me was the interruption and curtailment of my education. I left the school I was attending at Newark in August and began a two-year course at Newark Technical College. However, my father’s Air Force pay was insufficient for us to continue living in our rented house and in May 1940 I was required to go and work on a farm with one of my brothers so our family could occupy a tied-cottage on a farm at a much lower rent.
When I was old enough, I applied to join the RAF. Father’s C.O gave me a reference (no doubt based on my father’s character) and I went to Lincoln for a Medical. Unfortunately, by this time, farm work was classified as a reserved occupation and I could only be accepted for pilot or navigation training. Sadly, I failed the Medical, so my limited education was not exposed. I was very disappointed and remained disgruntled for the duration of the war.
As a well-experienced farm worker, but with limited opportunities for advancement, I immigrated to New Zealand in 1953. New Zealand has been very kind to me. And it is worth noting that approximately 1,000 airmen received their Initial Pilot Training on Tiger Moths here in 1942-43.'
The first days of the Second World War were making their mark. Even as people took on board changes to lifestyle, there were those who couldn’t help looking back, wondering what life might have held for them if war hadn’t come along when it did. Others had questions no-one could answer - How long will war last? What will it be like after? Yet amidst the questions, there were those who were already on an unexpected journey which would lift them out of the ordinary, placing them in the extraordinary life of RAF 100 Group as it evolved under Bomber Command at the end of 1943.