Derek Leedham's Memories of Whittington During World War II
Letter to Whittington History Society - February 2010
As a boy of 9½ years I was in the St Giles church choir at morning service on Sunday 3rd September 1939. The two sidesmen came to the altar steps with the collection directly in front of me. Vicar Fleming would normally receive the offering and give a blessing, but this morning something different happened - a conversation between Sidesman, Mr Percy Pearce, and the Vicar. After the blessing, the Vicar made the announcement that war had been declared on Germany.
To boys of my age excitement in the normally quiet village of Whittington began:
- the digging of trenches in the Croft by volunteers including Fred Owen, the blind cobbler. Fred Owen’s workshop stood at the corner of the Croft.
- soldiers on manoeuvres setting up a field kitchen in Bailey’s backyard, opposite the old police station, and driving through the main gates into the Hall grounds.
- walking up Norrington Lane to Mount Pleasant one dark night being able to see by the very bright light of the searchlight in Fisherwick Park until they switched it off when I was only half way up the lane plunging me into absolute darkness!
- air raid drills in the school garden, standing with arms outstretched each side of your body, so as just not to touch the person next to you; this was your space to lie down in if the siren sounded. After the shelters were built, sitting in them with gas masks on trying to do lessons!
- the men coming back from Dunkirk and sitting outside the Swan having a drink, only a few in uniform, some only half dressed.
- French sailors walking through the village from the Barracks.
- then the Yanks came, approximately 3,000 white Americans in the Barracks and 3,000 coloured GIs on the golf course under canvas. The tents were wooden framed with a stove inside and a chimney out of the top.
- the Yanks would come through the village on route marches, singing and chanting (but not in step). After the column had gone through stragglers would ask which way the GIs had gone. They had dropped out from the rear and gone into the Dog. They would throw money over the school wall; we would shout “Any gum, chum?” and they would ask “Have you got a sister?”
- the day we were playing football in the Croft and stopping to watch 3 Lysander aircraft diving down over the rifle ranges with only 2 coming up again. They circled low over the Croft and flew off. Shortly afterwards RAF officers arrived in a staff car and asked for directions as to where the downed plane was. We all got on our bikes to go and see for ourselves. It had landed in a cornfield and knocked down a few stooks of corn, but otherwise OK.
- the Xmas Party in the Barracks for all the school children transported by army lorries and returning suitably fed up and with a goodie bag each
- the Snowdrops (MPs) would drive down from the Barracks every 20 minutes or so. The routine was past the Old Police Station and into the Dog, next into the Bell and the Swan and then return. GIs without a pass would drink outside the Bell and on hearing the jeep at the Dog would disappear over a garden wall or into someone’s entry. Some of us lads would stand outside the Bell and as the jeep came down the street we would run across the road towards the Green and hide. On seeing the shadows move, the jeep would put on the search light and race around the Green towards Bit End and have to reverse back.
- The Boys’ Clubroom (the old Church Hall) held dances occasionally organised by the Home Guard. Five or 6 instrumentalists from the Barracks would come to play – I remember them with GI crew cuts and rimless glasses. After the interval others would join in and at times there might be a 10 piece dance band; the wooden walls and floor would be bouncing to the rhythm. For early teenage boys – WOW!
Those of us who didn’t go to Grammar School left school at 14, but the last year was spent working more often on the farm than in school. Most of us who lived down the Swan end of the village chose to go to Fodens Farm (about ½ mile from the new Memorial Arboretum) because they would collect us with a tractor and trailer, which happened to be the very latest Alice Charmer! (really Allis Chalmer). It went like a racing car; but with the downside that the farmer didn’t slow down much in the field.
The blackout caused trouble for some people. Old Mrs Arnold would go to bed very early, get up again around 8-9pm and put all the lights on. It was no good shouting “Put that light out!” as she was very deaf, so someone would use the long wooden peel from Mr Aston’s bakehouse next door and bang on the bedroom windows.
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