Schoolboy wartime memories of Chalton, Bedfordshire
- Contributed by bedfordmuseum
- People in story: Mr. Gerald How and Mr. John Jordan
- Location of story: Chalton and Colmworth, Bedfordshire
Part One — Evacuees at school, the local Civil Defence and the construction of Tempsford airfield
Part one of an oral history interview conducted with Mr. Gerald How by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum.
“I lived the village of Chalton which is between Moggerhanger and Blunham and I was the youngest of quite a large family – of twelve, my father being a market gardener in the village. I was eleven years old when war broke out. I remember that very clearly because my eldest sister she was very friendly with the daughter of the landlord of ‘The Guinea’ public house at Moggerhanger, Phyllis, we were walking up there that evening, the old village fella leaning over his gate. As a matter of fact he used to cut my hair and the barn that he used to cut my hair in still stands to this day opposite ‘The Guinea’ on the Sandy Road, on the corner there. He was leaning over the gate he said to us, ‘Oh well, we are at war with Germany now’ and that was the first I heard of it which was very frightening, scary to us. We just didn’t know what was going to happen in the coming years really. We’d heard rumours, what have you and reports but life had to go on.
And then from then on we had of course the evacuation of the London children down the village which didn’t go off too well actually because there was always a bit of jealousy between the local children and the London children. I would say they came in about 1941/42 time, about a year after the outbreak of war and the bombing started in London. They found it very difficult coming from London to live with country families, a different style of living altogether. I mean some of them were very poorly looked after children, coming from London and they were put with people, sometimes parents that weren’t all that good at looking after children, a bit strict some of them were.
Occasionally there were the odd fights in the playground, sometimes with sticks and what have you, it was quite a battle! We shared the school, Moggerhanger County Council village school. It was a big school, this was during the war of course and I would say that there would be about 30 children, probably 30 to 40 children. They came from the village and that included the evacuees as well of course. It was supposed to be one of the prettiest schools in Bedfordshire. It had white painted walls and that and gardens. It is a very, very pretty school.
The evacuees were billeted with people in the village, different people in the village. The story goes that Miss Church, the evacuated schoolteacher, as she was then, then she married this Army chappie and became Miss Rowe but she lived with a gentleman and his wife and family and they had an outside toilet. And apparently he wasn’t too particular so the story goes so she had a bit of a difficult time coming from London and they were a country family.
Of course we all carried our gas masks in the little cardboard boxes and the string. We had to take those to school with us and hang them on the hooks where we hung our clothes and then every so often we had gas mask drill. You always carried your gas mask which were horrible to wear. Very tight around the cheeks, nasty things but you get used to it. I remember that. Talking about gas masks I remember them being delivered in an open lorry in the village and us children helping to unload these gas masks into the big house, Chalton House.
But life was very exciting during the war for young people who were not totally involved with it. Because most of the able-bodied village men were called up straight away in 1939, 1940 to go into the Army. I remember the Army trucks coming round and collecting the local villagers at the cross roads at Moggerhanger there with their kit and stuff.
Another thing that impressed me mostly during the war were the searchlights. Because we had one at Willington, Vic Davison who was the Commanding Officer of the Home Guards that I was telling you about, he had a searchlight battery in his field behind his farm for a time before it moved to a site on the Willington/Great Barford road. They moved it down there later on and there again us young boys we would go down on our cycles, look around it and they were quite powerful searchlights and that was the nearest one to us at that time, they were manned by Army personnel. They had for detecting the sound of the aircraft – they had like four big trumpet horns. I don’t know how it actually worked but they picked up the sound and there would an Officer or a Senior NCO who would sit in a little swing chair with his binoculars, looking up — this is at night time to see if the search lights had engaged an aircraft. Because you think, there’d probably be 20 more searchlights around the area. Some further afield, in the distance. But it was quite an impressive sight. There was just one single searchlight and they’d probably ten miles apart, dotted around the countryside. We used to sit out, at nigh time on the grass verge outside the house at Chalton there and looking up at the skies admiring the searchlights waving around the skies and engaging the aircraft. Sometimes you’d see an aircraft glow in a cluster of searchlights and sometimes friendly aircraft and occasionally the enemy aircraft. I don’t ever remember any ack ack guns at all. Where the guns where, I don’t know. Probably assisting the fighters really, to see the aircraft and engage on them. Oh, yes there were fighter stations around. But that was quite an impressive sight.
Before I came into Bedford I went into lodgings for a spell with a local farmer and then I went onto painting and decorating for what was know as the ‘Land Settlement Association’ at Wyboston. We used to cycle out there which was quite a journey, something like 10 or 12 miles and painting and decorating the greenhouses and houses and what have you. I remember cycling home several times from Wyboston and you would always meet a RAF truck coming out from Tempsford with a big light on it, it’s indicator lamp – I forget what they’re called. But they used to take them every night somewhere as a beacon light on a mobile trailer. And I remember saying we would meet this truck going out, out into the fields there somewhere away from the airfield.
I think another one of my memories was the first 1000 Bomber raid. Because I remember that evening looking out across towards the Bedford area, Moggerhanger, and seeing in the sky a mass of aircraft, little black objects really, oh hundreds of them going from north to south over the Bedford area. Because instead of going directly towards Germany they did a detour, they would go down towards Reading and then across the north of France and then to Germany, in that direction. So it would fool the German radar. I remember that very, very clearly. There were so many Bomber Stations around the East Anglia area, in Lincolnshire as well and one or two in Bedfordshire of course.
But the Americans, they used to fly out at daytime. We could see them forming up because they would circle around until they got into formation and then they would head off and then of course coming back they would be staggered. Some of them with engine failure and very low but they would come back just before dusk. They were very brave to go there at day time I think, they were sitting targets.
Oh, it was exciting. I mean these days people go to airshows and when they see the Lancaster coming over they think that is marvellous, wonderful but when you think you are seeing hundreds of them flying across the skies.
I was filling sandbags for the war effort. That was at the Moggerhanger Sanatorium and as youngsters we went up there in the evenings and helped to fill these sandbags to put all round the hospital. And just opposite Moggerhanger Park I remember the Army making camp there at one time and we as boys would go down there and scrounging rations off of them. There was often Army manoeuvers in the area, there were convoys of tanks going down the road but there was always something happening.
My father died during the war. My sister reckons it was brought on by the bombing, there were five bombs dropped at the back of us actually although we lived out in the country, at Moggerhanger there. There were five bombs dropped. The first one was dropped right on the railway line between Willington and Blunham Railway Station and the second bomb dropped on the corner of the terraced houses between Chalton and Blunham. And the elderly couple there didn’t know what had happened — heard nothing they reckoned! And yet part of the corner house was blown off, it was a small bomb mind you. And then on the Ridge Road, it was known as Ridge Road at the back of us, there was an Observer Corp Post there and one bomb dropped just outside next to that and they didn’t know about it until my father went down the fields to it and said, ‘Look, there’s a bomb crater there!’ You see they must have been very small bombs. Then another other two, the fourth was dropped near to the Sandy Road and then the fifth one, the larger bomb was dropped 300 or 400 yards further up and that was quite a large bomb that was because you could have got a double decker bus in the crater. So it was a whole straight row across the countryside and the only damage of course was the railway line and the house, the corner of the house. They found part of the bomb shrapnel from the first bomb outside The Anchor public house at Great Barford.
Of course being young boys war had a certain amount of glamour to it because we all wanted to be in uniform, we wanted to do something. I know that we had a local Home Guard and the Commanding Officer was Colonel Vic Davison, he had no previous Army experience at all but he was a big farmer at Hill Farm and he was put in charge. And of course all the lads that worked on the land that were not called up for the Regular Forces were put into the Home Guard with very little basic training, with their wooden rifles as such.
We watched them doing their drill. Because they used to go on night duty, probably at the Village Hall they’d do night duty and that. Because there was one night they believed a German parachutist had dropped in the village and was dashing through this hedge. Two of them, one of them was quite a character in the village, he’d got his rifle and fired and he blasted the sleeve of his mate, actually of his uniform, in a panic. They reckoned what it was, was a poacher out poaching for the night, dashing across through the hedgerow. I well remember that story.
I had a BSA bicycle and I quite enjoyed that. Yes it was quite exciting times for us boys I must admit. We all wanted to be in uniform because we thought that men in uniform were heroes. And I know I tried to become a Messenger in the Home Guard, I would have loved to have been a Messenger in the Home Guard but I was still too young, they wouldn’t accept me.
Of course being Tempsford Aerodrome not far away we used to watch the large bombers coming and going. We used to cycle down there actually to the aerodrome until a certain time when they put a Sentry Post about a mile away from the airfield where you could no longer go through. Because it was a ‘top secret’ airfield where they used to go and drop secret agents over to occupied countries and land and pick some of them up.
I had three brothers and one was helping to build the aerodrome in 1940/1941. My next eldest brother,was Tom and he used to drive a lorry for John Laing the contractors who were building the airfield and who are Laings – to this day building houses. They were a small company in those days, the Head Quarters was Mill Hill, London and I used to sometimes go along with my brother in the cab of the lorry and we went up to Mill Hill and it was just like an ordinary little builders yard. Yet he had this big contract building these aerodromes. Tempsford was built by John Laings and I used to enjoy driving around in my brother’s lorry and eventually the lorries came under the Government, the Air Ministry and they had the RAF roundels painted on the front and that really pleased me. I thought this is great, my brother driving a military lorry and he used to come at nights and park it in the small farmyard.
He was a civilian. He used to bring the Irish navvies into Bedford at nights in the back of the lorry with the hood over the top. One day he was going along and the thing wasn’t fixed at the back of the lorry and it slipped and all these Irishmen fell out the back of the lorry! He stopped just in time. But he used to bring them into Bedford – they were in lodgings and then take them back at night time.
Being Irishmen they were tough gangs actually and they had a riot down there at Tempsford one day. It was to do with the bonus being given to them or something and they all went mad on the airfield stoning the Foremen and the Bosses driving up the wrong ways in their dumpers. And it got really out of hand and they called in the Army which were billeted in Sandy, near Sandy Market Square to come and round them up in a compound opposite the airfield and they shipped them back to Ireland, it was that bad. I remember speaking to one of the lads in the village, he worked down there as well at Tempsford and he said he used to take a knife with him after that because he was so scared of these Irish navvies at what they’d been doing. He worked there until he was called up in the Forces later on in the war.”
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