09 March 2023
Alick Lavers was a very young boy living in Devon when war broke out. Here he shares his memories of those years of conflict with examples from his family archive of wartime items. The details and personal recollections will be of interest to anyone wishing to better understand the view of the war from someone who lived through it; and Alick’s account may also inspire you to pen episodes from your own life so far too
“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.
…Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail.”
Neville Chamberlain’s speech to the Nation – 3rd September 1939
It must be very difficult to appreciate the discomforts and restrictions experienced by all of us in this country during “The War”, if you were not part of it. Although attempts were made to keep the threat of annihilation from children, most of us quickly came to realise something of the real truth of what was going on, particularly when the Luftwaffe started their bombing campaign on Plymouth.
Total blackout was necessary from dusk to dawn, which meant not only sealing up windows and doors to stop all light escaping from houses but also criss-crossing windows with sticky tape in an attempt to cut down on flying glass during air-raids because the vibration of bombs and gunfire often shattered windows from miles away. It was forbidden for anyone to smoke outdoors at night, as the glow was visible to aircraft and created a target. There was no street lighting and vehicle lights were restricted to a pitiful narrow low beam, hopefully invisible from above, which meant that all vehicles crept along the roadside, trying to find directions from an ever-decreasing number of signs. The kerbs were painted with vertical white lines at intervals, which were the only guides to drive by at night. Anyone found outside their home at night ran the risk of being challenged by Air Raid Wardens or Police and taken to the nearest police station or Army depot for questioning. The ringing of church bells was forbidden, except to warn of imminent invasion, when a single tolling bell would be rung to warn everyone in hearing distance. Because of the fear of invasion, all signposts were removed, in an attempt to confuse the invaders.
The threat of a Nazi invasion
There was a real and justified fear that the Nazis would invade England and turn it into a huge concentration and extermination camp, which was in their plan. Hard to believe? Nevertheless it was a fact and we who were alive then knew only too well! The German plan was that all young men and women would be worked to death and then exterminated, while the old and the young would be put to death first. Chosen children with Aryan characteristics would be kept in special schools where they would be indoctrinated, brought up as Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) and used for breeding purposes. Hitler had picked Oxford as his place of residence, Goering decided to live near St Ives in West Cornwall and other Nazis had made their choices in other parts of England. The knowledge of what was going on in the numerous concentration camps and death camps throughout Europe was filtering through and created fear and determination that we must never ever surrender.
I remember Mum telling me about the atrocities which the Germans had committed in the First World War, including the shooting by firing squad of Nurse Edith Cavell who was treating British, Belgian and German soldiers and bravely assisting some to escape to England. Her knowledge was from soldiers returning from that war and far more believable than the fanciful ramblings of armchair historians.
We were constantly advised to study aircraft silhouettes and try to identify German aircraft in order to quickly take cover.
For us, all food, clothing and fuel were rationed and petrol was only allowed for essential journeys. Many people, like our neighbours the Tredinnicks, had to wrap their cars up, prop them up on bricks and shut them away in their garages. I remember watching Mr Tredinnick whenever he decided to open up his locked shed near to Dad’s garage and try to start his car to ensure it was still operational, often with little success because of the damp in the allotment area. Dad was only allowed enough petrol to travel to work in Devonport Dockyard by motor-cycle. There was not enough available for a car and Dad didn’t have one anyway. Public transport was limited and taxis went out of business, unless they were contracted for war work. There were no niceties available, for example toothpaste disappeared from the shops and we cleaned our teeth with salt.
All adults had an Identity Card like Dad’s and all civilians, including children, were each issued with a gas mask in a cardboard box with our name on it, with a cord to go over the shoulder, which had to be carried everywhere. The outbreak of the war coincided with my starting primary school, so we children used to walk to school with a gas mask slung over one shoulder and a leather satchel slung over the other for six years. We often had gas mask exercises at school, just to keep us familiar with what we hoped we would never have to use. Anyone caught outdoors without their gas mask was breaking the law so we got used to carrying the wretched things everywhere we went. Dad joined the Air Raid Precautions volunteers (ARP) and was issued with a dark blue serge uniform, a black steel helmet with ARP on it in white letters, a special identity card, an armed forces gas mask and a stirrup pump, the latter to enable him to attempt to extinguish fires wherever he was. Essential equipment at that time!
I have his record of the issue of his ARP kit and on the reverse are the prices which he would have to pay should be need to replace items. He had to attend the evening ARP unit in Crownhill every night, two miles away, after having worked all day and eaten a quick evening meal. Grandad, who had fought in the First World War and who was 64 at the outbreak of WW2, also joined the ARP and used to cycle from Maristow, leave his bicycle with us and ride pillion on Dad’s motorcycle to Crownhill. When the Luftwaffe started bombing Plymouth in earnest, it was not unusual for Dad and Grandad to spend all night in Plymouth, rescuing people from burning buildings, giving first aid and helping to put out fires, before coming home for a quick breakfast before Dad had to return to the dockyard to work all day. This became commonplace. Grandad had a poacher’s folding .410 shotgun clipped to his cycle crossbar and often shot rabbits on his trips to and from Maristow and Roborough. There was hardly any meat available from the butchers but, thanks to Grandad, we ate a lot of rabbits! I never cared for rabbit meat at all but we were hungry and I learned to eat a lot of things which I have, thankfully, been able to give up since. Lead shot which escaped detection until it appeared in the mouth was particularly nasty and didn’t do our teeth any favours!
Dad’s work in the dockyard
Devonport Dockyard has always been a dangerous place to work, with deep dry docks capable of housing large warships, steel bollards and obstructions all over the place also cranes and trains running through on rails. With a total blackout in place, it became a nightmare. There was a round-the-clock work force, split into shifts and often safety railings would be removed from docksides, which resulted in some horrendous accidents in the dark. Dad was employed as a shipwright and worked onboard many warships and often found that the ship had slipped it’s moorings and was at sea, testing equipment, while he and his mates had been working below decks. On many such occasions, Dad had to wait for the ship to return alongside before he could get ashore to leave the dockyard. During that time Dad’s pay was four and a half pence (old money) per hour!
The public were encouraged to erect air-raid shelters in their gardens. These were made of corrugated sheeting and were designed to accommodate up to six people. They were to be buried in the ground and covered with earth and any other protection that could be found. Men who earned more than £5 per week were expected to buy one for £7 for their family. Dad earned less than £5 per week but didn’t apply for a free one because he considered they were unsafe. He was proved right – they gave little or no protection against bombs and shrapnel. Jack Hamley, our neighbouring blacksmith, offered us to share his but after one night down there with snails and slugs floating on a foot of stinking stagnant water, we declined his further offers! I can still remember it, in absolutely horrible detail. After that enlightening event, Mum and I spent our nights under our kitchen table when there was an air raid, which was often.
When enemy aircraft were detected, the air raid sirens would be sounded to warn us to take shelter. The noise was bad enough in daytime but the shrill wail at night was really frightening. Plymouth had a number of anti-aircraft batteries with searchlights and guns installed around the city, and they would start banging away when they caught aircraft in the searchlights’ beams. Then the ground would really shake when the bombs started falling. Houses would shake, furniture would jump up and down, crockery would fall off the shelves, tiles would fall from the roof, windows would shatter and doors often didn’t fit properly again afterwards. And this was the effect for people living miles outside the area which was being bombed. We lived five miles from Plymouth centre but it felt as if the bombs were falling all around us. The noise was incredible, very frightening and often went on for hours as wave after wave of German bombers came over. I can assure you that at times like these we were utterly helpless and there was absolutely nothing we could do but pray. Remember, this went on for years, and we never knew when a raid would happen. I remember that we knew that the German bombers dropped their bombs in ‘sticks’ of eight and we used to count each time we heard a bomb fall, hoping that we would still be alive at the count of eight. Dad was always in Plymouth, in the middle of it, while Mum and I were wondering if we would ever see him again. The poor animals were terrified! Cows, sheep and horses would often get out of their fields and run for miles. Just think of what situations that created on roads with no lighting!
I shall never forget the day on which Mum and I went into Plymouth and the Luftwaffe paid us a daylight visit. We were in Spooners, which was then Plymouth’s pride and joy, a grand department store across the road from St Andrew’s Church, right in the city centre. The air-raid sirens started wailing and Mum grabbed my hand and we ran out onto Old Town Street. We could hear the loud explosions of bombs landing somewhere quite close. We ran all the way up North Hill, the length of Mutley Plain and a double-decker Tavistock bus slowed down as we reached the bottom of Mannamead Hill, about a mile from Spooners. The bus was packed and we just about managed to scramble onboard, or rather we were dragged onboard by other passengers. I can still see the boarding platform at the rear of the bus and remember being dragged along the wooden battens which covered the floor. We got off at Roborough and Mum declared that we would never go into Plymouth again while the war was on! I was six years old at that time but I can still remember it incredibly clearly.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Plymouth in March 1941, to boost morale. Unfortunately, the Luftwaffe got wind of it and spent all night bombing the city and succeeded in flattening Spooners, along with many other large buildings. Thankfully, our King and Queen had left during the afternoon before the bombers arrived! So our visit to Spooners must have been sometime after July 1940, when the first bombs were dropped in daytime, and before the royal visit.
Torpedo nets were installed across Burrator Reservoir, in anticipation of a German attempt to carry out a dambuster raid, which would have been an absolute disaster on the source of Plymouth’s water supply.
A welcoming home for all
The Germans bombed Plymouth from July 1940 to the end of April 1944, off and on. I can remember many things about those years. Every night the people of Plymouth would leave their homes and walk out of town until they eventually reached the countryside, to escape the hell of bombs and blazing buildings. One of the favourite places was Roborough Down, a mile from us on Dartmoor, where people could sit and watch Plymouth burning or try to catch some sleep on the springy heather. They slept anywhere, in the hedges alongside the roads, in fields and woods and our garden was usually full of people. This happened in all weathers, in freezing cold and in pouring rain – better than being bombed and burned to death in the city! I can remember Mum always left our front door open and people would just come in and find somewhere to sleep. Those who couldn’t get indoors would lie down in our garden. Mum would give them tea and they would be sleeping all over our house. I was told to stay under the kitchen table.
I can remember all those smelly feet and sometimes I fell asleep with someone’s dog. I would often sneak upstairs and watch the inferno that was Plymouth from our window at the top of the stairs. We were five miles away from the city centre but it was very clear indeed and the noise and flames were too close for comfort, with burning debris falling everywhere when the wind was from the south. The oil tanks which contained vital fuel for our ships were bombed and they burned for many nights, which gave the Luftwaffe a clear picture from above. It was as though there was no night, only an orange day. The anti-aircraft guns would fire something which Dad called flaming onions, tracers to show the gun crews where their shells were going. These would have been a fantastic fireworks display but it was all too horribly real. I can still see them in my mind’s eye, as real as if it were last night. I have never enjoyed fireworks since those times. In the morning, before daylight, our guests would gradually leave and make their way home, hoping their home was still standing where they had left it. Nothing was ever taken. Nothing went missing. There would always be some cash left behind on the sideboard, for the tea and sandwiches. Our Queen later sent out certificates to all those who had opened their doors and offered shelter to the less fortunate and Mum received one.
Fire service logistics
One awful thing about the blitz was that it transpired that different towns had different water systems. This was before standard national systems for electricity and water were in force. Plymouth was the Luftwaffe’s main target, because of the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army there. When Plymouth was on fire and the fire service was overwhelmed, other fire services came from Exeter, Tavistock, even from Somerset and Cornwall. However, sadly their appliances didn’t fit the water mains in Plymouth, so the frustrated visiting firemen were unable to provide more than physical assistance and their hoses were idle!
There was one night which I can still see so very clearly indeed. I was looking out of my parents’ bedroom window, at the front of our house, when I saw an aircraft on fire coming straight for us from the direction of Bickleigh. Like a giant elongated fireball, which grew brighter and brighter and flew lower and lower as it approached. I remember ducking down when it seemed that it must surely hit our house but it passed just overhead, only a few feet from our roof, too close for comfort! I could clearly see burning bits falling off as it approached. I ran to my bedroom window at the back of the house, in time to see the flaming aircraft, now even lower than our house, pass over Drake’s Leat and crash with a mighty explosion in the field the other side of the leat, behind our village. The countryside and village were lit up for a while by the explosion. Only a few feet lower and we would have been statistics! The flames eventually died down and I went back to the front room window. It was dark outside but we later watched as a policeman, holding his bicycle handlebars with one hand and carrying a revolver in the other, escorted two German airmen up the road in the direction of Plymouth. The next day the village was alive with the story! The German crew had baled out of their doomed bomber over Bickleigh.
Mrs Ellis, a farmer’s wife, who we all knew for her prominent singing voice in Bickleigh Church choir, lived in Coombe Barton Farm, in the valley close to Bickleigh village, not far from our school. She was on her own when two German airmen knocked on her door in the night. This brave woman took a twin-barrelled 12-bore shotgun, made the Germans hand over their revolvers and marched them over a mile in the dark to Roborough Police Station, where she handed them over to the police. Their unmanned aircraft was the one which had narrowly missed our house and had crashed into the field right next to the village sewage works! Thankfully it had missed the sewage farm, otherwise the story could have had a different ending!
After school next day I went to see. A policeman was on guard but I managed to take some bits of the aircraft while he was distracted talking to someone. Great for swaps with other boys in the village! The bomber was partially burned out but we looked hungrily at the still intact tail fin with the swastika. If we could have got our hands on that, what a wonderful swap we would have had! The field was littered with craters where the aircraft’s load of bombs had scattered and exploded. I can still see the jagged fragments of large bombs and many small incendiary bombs, all over the field. Incendiary bombs were commonplace in those days and all we boys had picked the fins up to swap for more serious souvenirs. The incendiary bombs were packed with phosphorus, which ignites on contact, sticks to persons and clothing and cannot be put out by water, in fact it burns well when wet. It is extremely dangerous because it burns its way into the body and into the bloodstream and killed a lot of innocent people in that war but we were too young to think about that at the time.
I published the above incident in the Devon Family History Society magazine in May 2017 and it has since been vindicated by Joan Blowey (née Doughty) who confirmed that she and her brother Frank were evacuees living with Isabella and Bill Ellis in Coombe Barton, the farm just below Bickleigh village when the German airmen knocked on the door and she remembers it well. After the war Joan and Frank were sent back to their home in Acton, London but she later returned and married a Blowey boy who she had met in Devon and she eventually went to live in Tavistock, where their daughter Anne was born. Anne Blowey was educated at Tavistock Grammar School, where she rose to be Head Girl and after she left school she married and became Anne Johnson, since twice elected mayor of Tavistock. It was nice for me to hear that there was someone out there who also remembered that night and took the trouble to get in touch.
I have since found the official account of the incident, by Pat Twyford, War Correspondent for the Western Morning News, which reads as follows: “24 November 1941: Plymouth had a tremendous thrill last night, when a raider was brought down by a Polish night fighter directly over the city. I was a spectator to the whole incident as I stood with wardens at the junction of Glenhurst Road and Abbot’s Road. The raider seemed to be rather lower than usual, and we were straining our eyes to try and pick out the machine against the black sky. Suddenly, there appeared almost directly overhead a glow of fire. It was moving and growing in size. From the crowd there was a concerted yell, “He’s hit!” The glow spread, until the machine looked like a flaming cigar racing through the night sky. The machine continued in an almost complete encirclement of the city, and then, in a northerly direction, suddenly crashed, a fiery mass, to earth. For a moment the whole countryside was illuminated as the machine blew up. The four occupants baled out successfully – one of them, who was wounded, was pushed out by the others and landed at Plympton, and the others were captured in the Bickleigh district. The machine itself crashed in a field near the Roborough-Tamerton road, and this morning when I went out to see the wreckage I found it scattered over two fields. The force of the explosion, on hitting the ground, had been terrific.”
He was certainly correct in his last sentence! I can still see it in my mind’s eye – it lit up the countryside for miles around. I rather imagine that Mr Twyford employed some journalistic licence because he may well have seen the aircraft passing overhead but he could not have seen the crash from where he describes he was, although he may well have seen the flash in the sky above Roborough. The bomber flew towards Bickleigh, then circled back towards Roborough, where it crashed. It didn’t burn out completely, because most of it was still there when I saw it in the field the next day but he would have heard the bombs and probably the fuel tanks exploding. The wounded German was caught in Plympton while the fourth one was captured later. Exciting times for a seven-year old and I had some wonderful bits of a German bomber to swap with other boys!
The Germans used incendiary bombs as terror weapons because they put so much fear into the population being bombed that they caused mass terror. There were many instances of crashed German bomber crews being subjected to what the press would call ‘summary justice’ by the civilians on the ground. I don’t recall anything like that happening locally.
At some time at the beginning of the war, when the Luftwaffe started bombing us, the government decided to evacuate as many children as possible from the big cities to the countryside. We took a girl from London, Beryl Bancroft, who was a bit older than me and very nice and sensible. She was a great help to Mum, who she helped out in many ways and Beryl slept in our tiny spare bedroom. To me, she seemed to be very tall and quite thin and for a while she was the sister I never had. Our neighbouring blacksmith and his wife, who had no children of their own, took two sisters aged between 7 and 10, also from London but they were completely different from Beryl! They came from a very poor part of Acton and were absolute terrors. They disliked the countryside, wanted to return to London and made life very difficult for Jack Hamley and his kind wife. I can remember once they were throwing rusty horse shoes from Jack’s stack into our garden and Mum asked them to stop whereupon they treated Mum to some amazing verbal abuse, with language I had not heard before!
After a while it became apparent to the government that the evacuees who were in Plymouth would be just as safe back home in London, because we were suffering from as much of Hitler’s attention as was London. So Beryl and the two thugs next door were sent home to their respective families and Jack Hamley and his wife could live in relative peace again, with only the relative threat of being bombed to contend with! I missed Beryl, because she was a good friend to me, an only child, and she and I shared a love of reading when she was with us. She visited us when the war was over and she and I walked around the fields and lanes again, reliving our old times together. However, Beryl was growing up by then and we had little in common. She did write to Mum and Dad often and visited them at least once, after I had moved away from home.
Dad was incredibly skilled in carpentry and made many toys for me, including a scale model of a Lancaster bomber, a wartime requisitioned armed fishing vessel, a scale working model of a yacht complete with sails and he had even carefully etched in and painted the decking. Dad would get the plans for the item in question, then use his scale rule to faithfully reduce it to the required size. Most of the items he made were surprise presents for birthdays or Christmas, so he would work on them in secret in the evenings in his draughty garage across the road and eventually produce a masterpiece on every occasion.
At the beginning of the war my two life-long friends came into the village. One was John Perkins, who was the grandson of Mr Robinson who had been Lady Roborough’s chauffeur and who was my grandparents’ neighbour at Pound Cross, Maristow. John’s father was conscripted into the Army and I think he was serving in North Africa, so John and his mother left their home in South Sussex and moved in with the Robinson family for the duration of the war. The Robinsons were then living in the lodge at Roborough House, a short distance from the village and moved into the village later. John started school at Bickleigh at about the same time as I did and we always walked most of the way home together until we reached the village, where we would part company. The photo shows John with me in 1950.
John had an Uncle Ron Norris, who was married to Mum’s best friend Dolly. Dolly was one of the Robinson family ‘girls’ and she and Ron lived a few doors away from us in the village. Ron was a railway porter/signalman at Bickleigh Halt, a short distance from Bickleigh village. I remember John and I going down to visit his uncle at the station once when they fried eggs and bacon on a shovel in the firebox of the shunting engine and we had a delicious meal in the cab. Wonderful memories!
My other friend was Peter Sullivan, whose parents moved to Roborough from North Devon when the war started and Peter also joined us at Bickleigh School. We were all three roughly the same age and we spent a lot of time together. Peter lived a few hundred yards towards Plymouth, in a large detached house named Molesford, which is still there opposite the big Tesco store which was built long after the war. His father was a radio correspondent for the BBC and a Captain in the Home Guard. Peter’s mother’s mother was a member of the Rose family, who owned a manufacturing jewellery business in London. She appeared to me to be a bit of a dragon, who seemed to disapprove of everybody but her own family and treated me as if I were some sort of inferior species but Peter and I became the best of friends, despite Grandma Rose! Peter had very unruly blonde hair and masses of enthusiasm and energy and he loved singing boisterous songs, such as ‘The Big Ship Sails ThroughThe Alley Alley O’, which he insisted was ‘…The Arry Arry O’! I remember we were walking home from school together one day and I had fashioned a toy pistol from a branch growing from the hedge, just a bent piece of wood. Peter and I fought over it and I hit him over his head, forgetting that the piece of wood was in my fist. I can still remember watching in horror as his hair changed from blonde to red as the blood appeared. It seemed that it would never stop and we rushed home to my house and my horrified Mum bathed Peter’s head and wrapped a bandage around it. I was in serious trouble over that skylark! The only photo I have of Peter is above, later in his life when he won a prize in his favourite sport of grass track racing. Peter really loved to win and lived for it in everything he did.
I remember that Peter had a large model fort and a large collection of lead soldiers and toy field artillery which fired matchsticks! We spent many hours playing with these on the floor of the Sullivan lounge. Peter’s father had a large stamp collection and was a serious collector who had given his son a small stamp album of his own, partly to encourage Peter to collect stamps and also to keep Peter away from his father’s precious collection! As a result, I too became interested in philately and Dad and Mum gave me a starter album and encouraged me to follow the hobby. I collected stamps for many years and later transferred my large collection into a Kalamazoo loose-leaf binder, complete with index and proper sheets which I carried around from home to home until recently, when I asked Warren and Margaret to drop it off at the stamp auction house in Derby on one of their visits to Susan. It sold for £300 which I was able to give to the Gurkha Welfare Trust, who really appreciated the cash more than I appreciated the stamps.
Pull your socks up!
Peter and I were both rather like “Just William”, Richmal Crompton’s invention. Like many small boys, we had a habit of attracting dirt and our socks were always down over our shoes. We seemed to have a natural affinity to combine our energies and get into a great deal of trouble! John Perkins was always our friend but more cautious and didn’t always join in our adventures. Also, his socks seemed to stay up, which was always very annoying for Peter and I!
GIs & the K-Rations
I remember that, a long time before D-Day, we suddenly had American GIs absolutely everywhere: on the roads, in the woods, in the hedges, in the fields, everywhere! There was a company of GIs living in the wood behind Roborough Lodge, where John Perkins lived. Also in the small wood and adjoining field beside Bickleigh Down Road, only a few yards from where I lived. I often entered the wood and found myself staring at a GI, more surprised than me that someone had found him. They had an amazing amount of what they called K-Rations, which included real coffee and chewing gum, which they showered us kids with. Mum was thrilled to be able to get real coffee in wartime – all she could buy in the shops was the bottles of Camp Coffee, a poor substitute – and it was rationed, like everything else. We kids were overjoyed to have real chewing gum and sweets for the first time since the war started. The GIs were rehearsing for when they carried out the D-Day landings in France and were creating telephone communications everywhere. The speed with which they drilled holes in the fields and erected telegraph poles was amazing! The poles were not as hefty as our standard ones but we were pleased to collect them later, after D-Day, and Dad put up new posts for Mum’s washing line. He also used a few to extend his garage and workshop. The US Army didn’t seem to have any procedures to collect the items which they had left behind, nor did our military - they were too busy. John Perkins and I found broken US Army carbines in the wood above Roborough Lodge, which made our war games even more realistic. Thankfully, the firing pins had been removed, particularly as there were many rounds of ammunition scattered around too…
Our local PoW camp
There was a prisoner of war camp about a mile away, up on Roborough Down, next to the woods. We were forbidden to go there but we did, of course. We could only see groups of prisoners behind the barbed wire and could not get anywhere close. The prisoners were generally very unfriendly and some shouted abuse and bad language at us kids. This immediately classified them as aliens in our eyes, because the English never ever shouted abuse at children. After four years of being bombed, it was strangely comforting to see them safely locked away.
Quite a visit to the dentist
It was near the end of the war that I suffered my first visit to a dentist. I started experiencing severe toothache in the summer of 1944, so bad that I could not sleep. All that was available in those days were Aspro tablets, intended for mild headaches but they didn’t do much for my toothache. I can still remember lying awake in my bed during long summer evenings, with the window wide open and I could clearly hear Mum and Dad working in the garden - but the pain just would not go away. Most of the doctors and dentists had been conscripted to serve in our armed forces and there was an acute shortage of professionals left to serve the civilian population. Eventually Dad found the whereabouts of a dentist on Mutley Plain in Plymouth, called around after work and made an appointment for me and I was taken to Mr Baxter’s surgery by Mum and Nana. There was simply a doorway in between two shops and the surgery was upstairs. The stairs were covered with a rubber material, instead of the usual linoleum and I can still experience the horrible smell, even now. I will never forget it! The dentist had a severe-looking nurse and I can still remember sitting in the chair, leaning back and the nurse placed a mask over my face. No explanation or comfort was offered. Naturally I started to panic! During wartime the only analgesic available for dentistry was nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. It was supposed to calm and sedate the patient but not for me! After a while I was still completely awake and the gas was having no effect whatsoever! The nurse held me down firmly by my shoulders and the dentist removed the mask from my face, roughly opened my mouth and started to pull my teeth out, one by one! The pain was incredible and there was blood everywhere! Many years after the war I discovered that my first dentist was infamously known as “Butcher Baxter”. I have often wondered if it was really necessary for him to extract all my teeth but it was not the custom to question professionals in those days.
I still have the book which Nana gave me, as a sort of reward, after my experiences. “Out with Romany again” written by G. Bramwell Evens, one of the Romany wildlife series which I enjoyed, and inside she has written my name in her unmistakeable lovely handwriting and ‘June 1944’. I remember Nana gave me the book and said it was because I had been brave on my second visit! I was not a bit brave, though. I was absolutely terrified! I had an insatiable appetite for books and would read anything I could get my hands on. My cousins and I always gave each other books for our birthdays and Gran often gave each of us books for our individual achievements or just because she thought it was a good idea at the time. Mum did the same, so I always had a book to read. I was a great fan of Rupert and Dad used to bring home the Express newspaper in which there was always a Rupert series which I always enjoyed. Each year Mum and Dad gave me a Rupert annual at Christmas, which I used to read over and over again.
A pre-D-Day tea
One memory which stands out was when a very smart British soldier called on us before D-Day, in full khaki battledress and carrying his rifle. He had been given our address by one of Mum’s family and arrived late afternoon. Mum immediately cooked him a meal, which he sat down and ate hungrily while we sat at the table and talked to him. I couldn’t take my eyes off his rifle, propped up in the corner, so he asked me if I would like to hold it? Would I!!! He passed it to me and, of course, I could hardly lift it. We all had a good laugh but it made me think of how heavy it must have been for him to carry with him all the time. He was on his way to Plymouth to embark on a landing craft and when he left we never saw him again, nor do I know how he fared in the landings.
I can vividly remember when the Allies liberated Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. Dad used to bring home the newspaper every night and I used to avidly read it from front to back. On this occasion it was packed with accounts and photos of the terrible conditions found in the camp. I cannot ever forget the photos, particularly the ones of the lamp shades made from human skin! Mum just sat and cried and cried when she saw the photos. I will never forget it but it brought home to us just what the Germans had been doing in Europe and intended to do if they had invaded the British Isles and later on, America.
The power of prayer
It is often forgotten today how much our nation trusted God during that war. United in adversity and never once contemplating defeat, our King George VI called everyone to National Days of Prayer at seven crucial times during the war – the first in May 1940, for Dunkirk, and the seventh in the Spring of 1944 around the time of D-Day. Unbelievers will always remain sceptical but Christians believe that God responded directly to the National Days of Prayer and caused miracles to happen, eventually leading to Victory in Europe on 8th May 1945. Of course, it is not possible to prove Christianity on the basis of answers to prayer, because cynics can always explain them away as coincidence. But as a former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, ‘When I pray coincidences happen, when I don’t they don’t.
Whenever Winston Churchill was going to speak on the radio we were given advance notice and everyone listened attentively and we all hung on his every word. Whatever the situation during the war, Churchill always gave us a positive message and certainly gave us reason to hope, despite the bombs and problems all around. He never made false promises but we always felt refreshed and excited after hearing this great man who certainly knew the power of words. I grew up with both his speeches and the encouraging Christian messages from our King and Queen, who we all loved very much. I remember when the war ended how we celebrated in our little village. A field was set aside for games for us kids and the Royal Navy brought swings and roundabouts, etc and hosted the village on a Saturday. I remember that each event cost us kids a penny and I ran out of money after an hour or so. I ran all the way home and asked Dad for more cash, which he gladly gave me, all in bronze pennies and halfpenny coins. Off again I went and spent the lot, of course. It was a wonderful day for us all, after the stress and strains of our wartime existence. The village collected money from all the households and Victory in Europe (VE) mugs were given to all the children, ordinary drinking mugs which were painted on the side. We thought they were wonderful!
The German U-Boat fleet surrendered in various places around the British Isles in May 1945. A large number of the U-Boats surrendered in Portland harbour, from where the crews were taken away and the submarines were taken to Plymouth.They were assembled in Millbay Docks and eventually the public were invited to see them and go onboard one of them. Dad took me along and I remember having to queue for ages to go onboard in single-file then down one hatch, passing along inside and up the other hatch. It took a long time and I remember how small and cramped they were inside, with the overpowering smell of stale air and diesel and thinking what a menace they had been to our Royal Navy and merchant ships.
Put the lights back on!
The lights were back on again and no more blackouts! Our street light across the road was shining each night again, so our back yard was lit up again and I could run to the loo, instead of groping around in the dark. I had forgotten what it was like to see the lights on everywhere! I remember walking down through the fields at the back of our home to a favourite place overlooking the wooded valley, where I sat on a low branch of a tree, well-worn by sheep and cattle, and thought, “This is Peace, so this must be what Peace feels like? Well, it doesn’t feel much different to what the War felt like, except that all the fear and uncertainty has gone. So this must really be Peace!” I remember feeling optimistic but I couldn’t understand why. The philosophies of an eight-year old!
Originally published September 2020. Reviewed March 2023.