Wednesday, 23 November 2011

A Suffolk girl’s war

THE bulldog spirit – that resilience in the face of fear so famously encouraged by Winston Churchill – undoubtedly helped Britain get through the Second World War with its optimism and sense of humour relatively intact. There’s a fine example of it in Una Jenkins’s childhood memoir about life in rural west Suffolk.

The Baptist chapel at West Row, near Mildenhall, was busy as usual one Sunday morning. Halfway through the service, during the singing of the second hymn of the day, the air raid warning sounded. “This caused some consternation as you can well imagine, especially as the enemy aircraft could be heard flying overhead and there was the noise of exploding bombs in the distance,” recounts Una, then a schoolgirl.

The minister urged worshippers to dodge under the pews. “We had quite a difficult time donning our gas masks because, even though we had practised wearing them, this was the first time we had used them in earnest.”

Meanwhile the organist, a Mrs Hinds, “was a very patriotic, lively person and she was certainly not intimidated by a few German bombers and continued to play the organ with gusto. As the aircraft came nearer and nearer, she increased the volume so, in the end, the noise of the approaching bombers was almost completely masked, being drowned by the patriotic tunes and hymns.

SUNDAY BEST: Bryan Taylor-Balls with his mother, Una's sister Elsie, cleaned up and ready for Sunday School
“This went on for some while. When the bombers eventually left, and the ‘All Clear’ sounded, the congregation resumed their seats and the whole congregation then gave Mrs Hinds a rousing cheer and everyone agreed she had been an inspiration to us all.”

It’s one of the tales in a 150-or-so-page social history book produced by Una that remembers the impact of the conflict on a small Suffolk agricultural community. It’s a follow-up to her 2007 title West Row Girl, which looked at the pre-war years and sparked memories among folk who know this place on the edge of the fens.

As the skies darkened over Europe, East Anglia was not immune. Air raid shelters were dug, gas masks given out, pillboxes built in case of invasion, sandbags laid next to public buildings and the blackout curtains went up.

“We did not realise at the time just how dramatically life was to change in West Row, as in countless other villages, towns and cities throughout the nation – or that there would never be a return to the old days,” explains Una. “Everyone was affected, from the eldest to the youngest inhabitant, and living through six years of war, with all the shortages and sadness, humour and comradeship, was to have a profound effect on everyone.”

LOOKING BACK: Una Jenkins, at home near Woodbridge
Una, who now lives near Woodbridge, explains in West Row Girl in War Time how post-teatime talk at home would mostly be about crops and agricultural prices, but in 1938 there was also concern about Hitler’s activities in mainland Europe.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waved a (worthless) signed agreement and spoke of a non-aggression pact and “peace for our time”, but the folk of West Row soon learned the neighbouring aerodrome at Mildenhall was to be expanded – with longer grass runways, new hangars and workshops – to take more squadrons of larger aircraft. Farmland was sacrificed as hostilities crept closer.

Una was 10. “As the year (1939) went on, the soft easy days of summer were with us, and the chance of war coming seemed more and more likely. The grown–ups spoke of little else . . . I think most of the children became bored with all this war talk and almost forgot about it, as the summer was hot, swimming in the river Lark, at Bargate, was good and we enjoyed the long summer days,” she writes.

“I began to realise that things must be becoming serious, when I heard my Dad talking with my brothers about digging a hole in our garden to take a shelter so that we would be safe inside in the event of an air raid.”

CHEERFUL: Land Army girls bag potatoes for Spitalfields Market
More Wellington aircraft arrived at the airfield. “It became a regular sight for us to see these large bombers flying around the area doing mock attacks and bombing runs, and practising formation flying.

“At first the noise of the bombers taking off was very noticeable – because if the wind was in a certain direction the planes would take off over our house – but after a short time we soon got used to it.”

Air raid wardens were appointed and leaflets were delivered to all households about all the rules and regulations in event of war. The Normans made shutters and blackout curtains for the windows and doors.

“As a child, I really couldn’t understand how this could happen, and why the Government were not able to stop this war. I was told that we were protecting our country and our way of life, and Hitler was not going to be able to alter this.”

PAPERS: Identity cards issued during the Second World War
Gas masks were distributed. “I was nervous when my turn came to try on my mask, for it smelt strongly of rubber and I thought I would not be able to breathe. However, all was well – in fact, it made me laugh for it made strange noises when we breathed out and Dad said we sounded like a herd of pigs.”

And then:

“On 1st September 1939, there seemed to be a lot of activity in the morning around the aerodrome. We heard on the news from the BBC that Germany had invaded Poland. The activity we had noticed on the aerodrome was 99 Squadron moving quickly to their war station on Newmarket Heath. Also, 149 Squadron, that had the latest Wellingtons, were moved to dispersal areas around the aerodrome, which meant that some were quite close to us in West Row. This was exciting I thought and, talking with my friends, I found that most of them felt the same.”

Then, on the Sunday, the morning service at the Baptist chapel was cancelled so folk could hear Chamberlain announce that Britain was at war.

WEST ROW LIFE: Una Norman as was, right, with nephew Bryan Taylor-Balls and a friend
Una was 11. “I soon slipped away into the garden, expecting to see some signs of the commencement of the war straight away, but of course there were no signs whatsoever. It was a beautiful sunny day with the roses still in bloom and the late summer flowers were still growing in profusion in the flowerbeds.

“I sat in my favourite corner of the garden, trying to take in all that had happened . . . I clearly remember looking across to the war memorial on the village green with the names of all the men of the village who had lost their lives in the Great War. Surely this could not happen again.

“I felt fearful for the young men who, no doubt, would either volunteer or be called up to serve in the services to fight for our country once again. There was a strong patriotic feeling in the village and it seemed to me that everyone was anxious to ‘do their bit’ . . .

“The Great War was supposed to have been the ‘war to end all wars’ but here we were, having to defend our liberty once again.”

SALUTE! Land Army girls on parade in their uniforms
Into 1940 and locals heard of several crashes around the aerodrome. In the March they learned a Wellington that had been dropping propaganda leaflets over Germany had crashed near Worlington, killing the crew. “In April, another Wellington, on a night cross-country exercise, crashed into a chicken farm between Beck Row and West Row – two of the crew survived but the remainder perished.

“On 17th September 1940 a German bomber dropped four bombs on Chestnut Farm, West Row. The closest bomb was only a few yards from the kitchen door and the stable had been totally demolished. Fortunately, there was no fire and Mr and Mrs Moxon, who owned the farm, were unhurt. On 27th November there was also a bombing raid on the aerodrome – 33 bombs were dropped, causing two fatalities.”

That year the family was allocated a new council house – one with running water! It looked over fields to the aerodrome, with a good view of the runways and the bombers in the dispersal bays.

“One runway ran from Beck Row to West Row and was used by the Stirling and Lancaster bombers loaded with heavy bombs. Eventually they carried blockbuster bombs with the weight of ten tons.

“When the wind was in the south they took off straight over our house; they struggled to make the height and our house juddered as they flew over us. The Plough Inn, nearby, suffered from the noise and the vibration so much that glasses fell from the shelves.

“I think we all said a silent prayer that the aeroplanes would pass over us safely, when the boys were on their way to bomb targets in Germany, because they were loaded with a full bomb load. As they flew over our house we counted them off, but, sadly, the same number didn’t always return.”

Life was odd: often happy and mundane, but underpinned by a sense of menace.

Una writes about deliberating over sherbert dips, liquorice laces, aniseed balls and so on during a hot summer’s day at Mrs Clarke’s shop – three ounces per person per week was the ration – “whilst such tragic things were happening all around us”.

“We were just choosing our sweets but, on the aerodrome, young men were preparing to leave in a few hours’ time, to drop bombs on Germany . . . I wondered if the German children were choosing their sweets and like us were also witnessing the mayhem of war.”

Evacuees came from riskier Tottenham. In all, 86 children, nine teachers and 123 mothers/helpers were billeted in West Row. Village children also enjoyed the activities laid on for the London visitors. Una particularly relished the concerts n the village hall.

“My favourite was the tap dancing, which I had never seen before. A group of girls performed a routine wearing swingy short skirts and red tap shoes with red bows on the top. I watched carefully what they were doing and the next day found a piece of board and practised making these tapping sounds. I achieved a fare imitation and I spent hours perfecting this wonderful sound.”

(Much later, in her 60s, she joined a class in Woodbridge) and learned properly – fulfilling her dream, “though my tap shoes were black and were not the beautiful red ones with the bows on top that the girls wore in wartime West Row”.)

Una left school at the age of 14, in 1942, and worked in the office of brother Vic’s nursery business.

Now came the chance to go to regular dances – and explore the joys of make-up! She and cousin Ivy headed for Bury St Edmunds, having been told Woolworth’s was the place to go, and chose foundation cream, face powder by Ponds, and a pale pink lipstick.

“I wondered how Dad would react to me wearing make-up, but much to my surprise he didn’t notice at first. When he did, he just said that I really didn’t need that make-up on my face – but that was all. I thought I was doing all right until an unkind lady said that I looked as if I had put my face in the flour bag. I was mortified and went home and started again.”

Weekly dances at the RAF gymnasium at Beck Row were open to all. Una and Ivy cycled there with friends, “using a short cut across the airfield. We stopped at the end of the runway, looked up and down to see if there were any aeroplanes in the circuit and, if it was clear, we cycled across as fast as we could. No-one ever stopped us from doing this, but now I can’t help thinking how risky it was and nowadays it would never have been allowed”.

It was weird and poignant dancing with boys whose futures were uncertain. “It really brought home to us the horrors of war and how so many of these young men didn’t make it home . . . I was 16 going on 17 years of age and some of these boys were not much older than I was.”

Brother Leslie suffered. He volunteered for the Royal Marines and was overseas for most of the war and was involved in the invasion of Sicily. “They ran into fierce German resistance and his friends and comrades who joined up with him were killed beside him . . . He also took part in the D Day invasion of Normandy and once again they ran into heavy fighting. His landing craft was hit by shellfire and was completely destroyed, killing everyone on board except Leslie – who was the only one to survive from his group.

“This horrific experience of warfare had a profound effect on him and he suffered with the trauma from this ordeal for the rest of his life – he was never the same again. I believe that he was just as much a casualty of war as the men named on the war memorial and who had lost their lives fighting for freedom.”

Una reflects that war “was just a necessary evil to protect all we value in society and we must remember the young men and women who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom, and we must never forget their sacrifice”.

Happily, there were moments to lighten the mood – such as the evening the Baptist chapel was hit by machine gun fire during a prayer meeting. Not an air raid, but wayward fire from across the river, where the Home Guard was practising! Luckily, no-one was hurt.

And there was hope for humanity in the relationships forged with PoWs, such as Italian prisoners working on local farms. “My father had the job of overseer to the prisoners . . . and they were very willing pupils. He liked these young men and had a very good rapport with them.”

One of the boys liked basketwork. “He made a round breadbasket, which he proudly presented to my Dad as a present. I have it now and use it all the time. He also made a basket for my bicycle and a lovely-shaped shopping basket, which I used for years.”

Sadly, for everything good there were many tragedies. Una says there were 260 bombers lost in operations from Mildenhall, with 1,656 lives claimed.

Fortunately, the end was coming. In the spring of 1944 there was a lot of activity in the area, with soldiers everywhere. On June 6, West Row found out it was because our troops had invaded Normandy, France. D-Day.

“There were bombers taking off from RAF Mildenhall round the clock as they bombed railheads and communications hubs to try to prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements.”

The eventual surrender in May, 1945, was incredibly emotional. “There was such an air of excitement in West Row – when people met, they shook hands and hugged each other, although normally they would be much more reserved.”

Out came bunting and flags. “I hadthe same feeling as on christmas flowers poland Eve, when everyone you met spoke to you calling out, ‘Merry Christmas’ christmas flowers poland blogs as they passed by.”

She and Ivy headed for an open-air dance on Angel Hill in Bury St Edmunds. “It was a fantastic occasion. A searchlight threw a broad beam of light over the square – what a contrast to their normal duties! The Abbey Gardens and Abbeygate Street were also illuminated, which was such a treat after the years of blackout and darkness.

“Thousands of people watched the open-air dancing and thronged into the gardens. There was a procession of service men and girls arm in arm, singing and dancing along the street. The public houses, some of which had been resupplied during the day, closed early with a notice: ‘Sold out’.”

Today, recently-widowed Una looks back on the conflict as a period of immense suffering “but also a time of people sharing what they had, of pulling together to overcome the difficulties and danger experienced in those dark days of the war.

“The people of West Row did their bit in helping to preserve everything that is good in the British way of life.”

n West Row Girl in War Time costs £9.99 and can be ordered on 01284 762 989 and 01394 460 660

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