As part of the AGES AHA “Bringing Archaeology to the Community” project, the Heritage Lottery Fund has supported the creation of three costumed “characters” to help local people engage with different periods in the area’s history. One of those characters is a 1940s man. To help get a feel for the times we asked longstanding member of AGES AHA – Mr Robert Nichols for his help. He was very obliging with memories of his Hadleigh childhood and Dad’s Army days; a transcript of the recording we made with him in April 2015 is printed below:
Before indulging in my recollections of those early War months in this South East corner of the United Kingdom, I feel it is essential to give a perspective to the living conditions then existing. It was only whilst giving this subject some thought that I suddenly realised that my entry into this world was only some three years after the end of the Great War. Whilst meaning less to me at the time, in retrospect now, it does explain the reasons for the austerity and some events affecting the period in which I was raised. Wars, of course, have to be paid for and the restoration of an adequate workforce after the recent mass slaughter would take many years to achieve.
Times were undeniably hard. Housing generally was poor, with no sewerage or running water supply. Only candles and oil lamps for illumination and a cast iron coal burning range, with an oven, was the cooking facility. These deficiencies were largely rectified by about 1930, but gas was for lighting and cooking only: i.e. no central heating of any sort!
Wages were poor and work was scarce, and to be unemployed was a disaster; no dole or Social Security in those days.
I still remember vividly seeing and hearing an occasional old soldier hobbling along on crutches; some had wooden legs and other obvious wounds. They would stop at intervals and valiantly endeavour to sing, this being their last hope for achieving some charity. Sometimes my mother felt able to spare a penny or two from her very limited household budget for me to give to the poor beggar, for whom I had deep sympathy, but had little concept of the reasons for his predicament.
Survival, therefore, was the dominant feature in most people’s lives – but all was not ‘doom and gloom’ – there were lighter interludes to be treasured, even in our strict regime, which for my twin brother and I, consisted mainly of time spent in the local fields and woods.
D.I.Y. (do it yourself)
DIY was an absolute essential and as soon as feasible my brother and I became the gardeners, detailed to maximise the output of a variety of vegetables. We already had mature apple and pear trees for fruit, and tended chickens and rabbits – for the pot. As with my elder brothers and sisters my schooling ceased at 14 years of age and working life began, commonly, at a weekly wage of 10 Shillings (50p). Incidentally, whilst I can only record my experiences, most, if not all, of my contemporaries of those times would attest to its generality.
By the 1930s events in Europe were arousing concerns and Hitler’s ambitions all too obvious. Upon his forces smashing Poland the subsequent declaration by the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, on September 3rd 1939 that we were now at war with Germany came as no big surprise, but naturally filled us with a deep foreboding.
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 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.
After Hitler’s easy annexation of the Low Countries, followed by the capitulation of the French Government, it was inevitable that his next objective would be the invasion of the United Kingdom and we, in the South East corner, felt extremely vulnerable, for obvious reasons.
Defence preparations started to be constructed; certain areas were evacuated to make room for military forces; air raid shelters were prepared; and daylight bombing raids started to become more frequent with those at night becoming more so – London being the main target. Also the Battle of Britain was being fought out over our heads; a glorious, but deadly, affair for those involved.
It was not until May 1940 that Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, declared that a Local Defence Force (LDV) should be formed. This was received with much enthusiasm by those of us available, as being a positive and maybe critical pursuit. It was, of course, but not in the way imagined, not possibly frontline heroes, but with no High Command, no defence positions, no really effective weaponry, in retrospect we were simply “sacrificial lambs” enabling real soldiers the time to deploy!
However, it was taken very seriously at the time, and Basic Training began with an issue of pikes (not “Stupid Boy” Pikes*) and some homemade weapons; later when rifles and uniforms were supplied we became the Home Guard, which definitely heightened our feeling of status. Our Commander was a retired Army Officer, whose name and rank I have forgotten, I do remember that he lived in a large house in Kiln Road (which may or may not still exist) with a large garden, where we trained in Basic Drills, Bayonet practice etc.
We also had one visit to the Firing Range on Hambro Hill, Rayleigh, but only two shots were allowed at the targets! Even so, I found it very necessary as the recoil from a Short Lee Enfield was greater than I expected and required proper anticipation.
Few memories of my Home Guard (Essex Regiment) days have survived the passage of time (now 75 years). Basically, during daylight air raids we were expected to man our posts, with rifles at the ready (my post was on the Kingsway Cinema roof), but those during night-time meant patrolling open areas such as Hadleigh Castle grounds and the fields along Scrub Lane, Woodfield Road and Belfairs. We were on the alert for “Nasty Nazi” parachutists, but not one ever obliged us!
On one occasion, on the “All Clear” siren, I was returning home in the early morning; my route was through The Crescent into The Avenue, where I noticed a hole in the grass verge of the pathway and saw a large unexploded German bomb, with its fins just below ground level. Its presence was apparently known, as a very excited ARP Warden assumed it was his duty to make me leave the spot with all speed. It obviously never did explode; perhaps the Bomb Disposal Squad took care of it.
On another occasion, I was detailed to stand guard at the local Police Station, in Hall Crescent (for reason unknown). However, a poison gas scare developed and the ARP Wardens could be heard vigorously swinging their wooden rattles, which were the official warning of gas. Policemen then started emerging from the door, beside me, fully attired against gas, totally ignoring me with nothing! It was a false alarm and not the only one either.
Another time, my brother and I were detailed to stand guard overnight of a seemingly intact German Bomber (a Dornier I think), positioned on the Cricket Field of Solby’s Recreation Ground (then privately owned). At daybreak a team arrived to take it away – for examination and testing, I believe, and we were dismissed, without any details about it whatsoever.
My most vivid (and final) memory occurred during a daylight Warning, whilst I was on patrol over the Castle grounds. I was at the high point where I had an amazing panoramic view of unfolding events. The Oil Tanks at Coryton had been bombed earlier and a huge column of smoke rose above them to about two thousand feet, then turned at almost ninety degrees and followed the Thames to the East without dispersing very much at all. Way in the distance I could just discern German “Stuka” dive bombers deliberately flying into the smoke, so remaining hidden until breaking out above Coryton, releasing their bombs, then re-entering the smoke to return unseen.
By September 1940 (after a few hazardous nights in London during bombing raids) my Dad’s Army experience terminated and my five and a half years war service in the RAF (and the Burma Star) began.
BUT that’s another story!
* Reference to Pike, the youngest character in the BBC television series “DAD’S ARMY”.
Interestingly, there is an episode of “DAD’S ARMY” where the Commanding Officer reads out a directive from Headquarters on how to spot “Nasty Nazi” parachutists!