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Us's & Co. Killed in Action

Killed in Action

 
I was just about leaving for work the next day, when a telegram arrived.  I didn't want to open it as they were always bad news.  My mind went back to the time when we received one telling us that Joe had been wounded.  I opened it up, it was headed 103 General Hospital CMF, which stood for Central Mediterranean Forces.  It said word to the effect that sorry to inform you that your son F. J. Keyte has been wounded in action.  I read the telegram over and over, I could not take it in, how could Fred be wounded in such a short time.  Now I was in a dilemma, who could I tell?  I didn't know where mum and Lily lived.  Then I remembered that mum had given me my sister’s address the night before.  I kept asking myself, "How could Fred be wounded so quickly? “  In the evening straight from work I went to see Lily in Stoke Newington, I had only seen her once before in all this time.  When I told Lily about Fred, she was naturally very upset, but she told me that it might not be serious, as they have to send a telegram even if the wound is only slight.  I stayed the night at Lily's place, her husband Arthur was a new face to me.  I had never seen him before.  I noticed that he had funny ways like, you mustn't do this or you mustn't do that, it seemed that he had set ways and everything had to be done according to his way.  Lily asked me to stay until dad came home, but I declined.  I asked her, "How would I know when dad was coming home if I did stay.”  Even if I did, it wouldn't be right to let him come home to an empty house.  I didn't tell Lily, but I wasn't too keen on Arthur with his bossy ways.
 
For the recent few days and nights, there were bomb explosions, but never the sound of aeroplanes.  There was a lot of talk going about at work, about a new type of bomb that Hitler was sending over called the V2.  This V2 was supposed to be his secret weapon.  Unlike the Doodle bug, the V1, the V2 had no engine.  It was a rocket that was fired at London, with no special target, but would be used to cause havoc and destruction.  There was no warning of them coming over and they never made a sound.  All that was heard was an explosion.  Well these started to come over fast and furious.  It was the first time that I sensed any form of fear of bombing.  There was no protection, it wouldn't be practical for people to stay in an air-raid shelter all day.  There was an old saying, here today and gone tomorrow, how true.
 
I got home a bit later that night, as I had gone for a long walk, I wanted to tire myself out, so that I would be able to go straight off to sleep, after going to bed.  I got almost to the front door, when I saw what looked like the silhouette of a man going into the recess of our front door.  Every night, there was a blackout on, so street lighting was very dim.  I got that creepy feeling at the top of my head and down my back.  Instead of attempting to go in, I walked straight past the front door, It looked as though he was trying to get in.  I walked across to the other side of the road further down so as not to be seen by him, then concealed myself by the side of the Allison Bread Co, waiting to see if he managed to get in.  After about five minutes he walked away.  I plucked up courage after a while, then went over to the front door.  The door was still locked.  One good thing was the front door had a sturdy mortise lock to it.  I opened the door and walked into the passage.  On the right hand side was a light switch, I quickly turned it on then checked the bolt on the cellar door at the end of the passage.  To my horror this was unbolted.  I went into the kitchen, turned on the light, thank goodness the back door was bolted.  I bolted the cellar door, humming aloud, that must have been nerves.  I put the radio on loud then upstairs, putting all the lights on in the house, one light I didn't put on was the one in the front room, as there was no blackout up at the window, unfortunately, that was the only window that was accessible.  I decided to sleep in dad’s bedroom, as I did the night before, there was a bolt on the inside of that room.  I lay there scared out of my wits, there were some explosion going on.  I prayed that I would soon go off.  I told Bert Overland the following day about Freddie being wounded, for some reason he didn't comment on it very much.  In the dinner time, I told Len Garrett about Fred and also about the man at the front door, last night.  Len said that hardly any cash was left in the chemist overnight, and that the kind of stuff that he sold would not be of much use to anybody.  I remember thinking to myself, the old man was right; anyway his front Chemist door had a padlock on it.  He didn't seem to be worried, he asked me why I wasn't staying with my sister, he seemed quite concerned at first, so I told him that it would be difficult to get to work from her place.  That night I went to bed fairly early, as I thought that it would be a good idea to go to bed while it was still fairly light.  The word was at the time that the V2 rockets never made a sound - that they just dropped.  I thought that was true as it seemed logical.  I was in a deep sleep in the middle of the night when I was awakened by a soft whistle, I instinctively rolled straight out of bed onto the floor, when there was a terrific explosion that shook the house.  Amazingly the windows were not broken maybe because the back of the house was shielded by the high walls, deflecting the blast.  The blackout that had been up at the window had fallen down.  I could see through the window that it was still night time, although the sky was bright.  I daren't put on the light with the blackout blind down, so I ran downstairs to sleep the rest of the night in the kitchen, the mice were the last of my worries.  The next morning there was a terrible smell of ammonia all over the house, no doubt some of the bottles were knocked over in the chemists.  I went up stairs and there was dust everywhere.  I noticed that where my head had been lying on the pillow, there was a lump of ceiling that had fallen down during the explosion, denting the metal head rail.  I have spoken to people since about that incident, and they all said that the V2 rockets never made a sound they just exploded.  I still say that it was because it was so near, that it was the whistle of it falling through the air is what I heard.  The same week dad arrived home, he had been supplied with a new suit, as his old one had been destroyed.  Dad said he wanted to go straight to bed as his head ached a lot lately.  I didn't want to tell him about Fred being wounded until he had had a rest.  When dad came back down, he asked me what had happened to the ceiling in his room.  I told him that I had heard a whistle that woke me up.  He said somebody up there is looking after you Stan.  Dad seemed a lot better now more like his old self.  I had to tell him about Fred and he too thought that things seemed to be happening all at once.  He couldn't have been more right.  I got home from work the next evening and he told me that we had received another telegram.  Sorry to inform you that you son J.A.C. Keyte has been wounded in action.  Dad had a way of hiding his emotions so I couldn't know what was going through his mind, but I could guess.  What with his injury, then the news of Fred and Joe being wounded, added to our financial problems, it must have been driving him to despair poor old dad.  What could I do?  Nothing.  He went upstairs to lay down again and that was so unusual for him. He still wasn't his old self, especially after the news of Joe and Fred.  While dad was upstairs, I read the telegram again.  It was headed 103 General Hospital (CMF)not having the other telegram, I couldn't compare, but I was sure that it was the same hospital that Fred was in.
 
When dad came back down, I told him what I thought about them both being in the same hospital.  Dad said that he would write to Joe later asking him to keep a look out for Freddie.  Somebody came round and repaired the ceiling in dad’s room.  Dad still wasn't his old self.  When I came home from work in the evening, I would have my tea, then take dad up a cup of tea and keep him company.  I knew he liked talking about old times.  While reminiscing, he would say, with tears in his eyes "My poor old mother, God rest her soul.  How she used to struggle with all those kids it was enough to make you spit blood.”  His father who he never said much good about had a big black beard and was nicknamed Black Jack.  His dad never did any work.  His mother, he said, used to scrub out houses in an effort to get a few bob.  Lots of dad’s stories were repeats, even so he would always say, "Did I ever tell you about the time when?”  So on and so on.  When he said it this time, I hadn't the heart to say "I've heard it" so I let him carry on.  He was always interesting to listen to, one story was, at a time when his mother had about ten kids, they lived in a room in an old house.  The only furniture they had was two double beds, naturally both in the same room.  They couldn't afford anything else.  They would survive on leftovers by going round to Peace and Plenty's collecting leftovers.  That's food that wouldn't be kept until the following day.  He would say that his father never worked and would spend most of his days dodging the bloody landlord.  At night, his mum and dad and the ten kids would all sleep in the two beds head to toe.  The only other thing they had was a canary in a cage, dad said, and that's only because the bloody thing cost nothing to keep.  One night they were all laying in bed, when his mother whispered "Jack, Jack, I think we've got burglars" "Poor sods" said his dad "I wish ‘em luck."
 
Dad’s letter could only just have reached Joe when we received a letter from him, telling us that he had met Fred in the same hospital, although he himself was still in hospital, Fred had gone off to convalescent. This letter cheered us both up dad seemed to perk up a lot then.  Every so often I would ask dad whether he thought that I would ever grow.  He would look at me with that same look as he had when he met me at Liverpool Street Station, he would have the half smile on his face and say, "You'll be just like the boys.  All of a sudden you will spring up like a bloody hot-house plant." On one occasion I was sitting on a chair in his bedroom, while he was having a lay down, asking the same old question, when he said, "There you are, that's it.”  I said, "What's it?”  He said, "You, sitting there with your hands resting on your knees.  Don't you know that that's a sign of a big man?”  Well it boosted my ego, for a while at least.
 
I heard on the radio, that the famous Glen Miller was missing, feared dead.  He was I believe a Captain in the American Army Air Corps, on route to entertain troops in Italy, his plane never arrived.  A similar fate was to fall on another famous person, in fact reputed to be an outstanding British actor of the time and that was Leslie Howard, only his fate was sealed a year earlier.  He starred in Gone With The Wind and The Scarlet Pimpernel.  So the war was taking its toll.
 
At last it happened, it was the sixth of June, nineteen forty four, D. Day.  All that big build up of tanks, bren gun carriers etc, that used to file past our front door, at last means something.  Surely the war must soon be over.  Deep down I was glad Fred had missed it, but I knew he wasn't.  Fred had always said that he hoped to take part and was always rearing to go, but he missed it by a few weeks.  So it wasn't to be.  We were getting Vera Lynn on the wireless with White Cliffs of Dover.  Anne Shelton and Flannigan and Allen with, Lily Marlene and Run Rabbit Run, all inspiring stuff.  Everyone seemed to be confident again.  The V2s were still coming over, we were almost getting used to them by then. Every now and again though, on the way to work there would be a space where a building stood the day before. A reminder that all was not over yet, that is if we needed a reminder.
 
I had got into a routine of midday meals by now.  Dad was alright looking after himself in that respect.  It was quite the usual thing for me and a couple of work mates to have dinner in a cafe at the end of Well Street.  The alternative for me, would be to get a bus home, then a bus back to work, which would have made it too much of a rush, as I only had an hour for dinner, mind you, for economical reasons I probably would have made the effort, but I didn't want to put too much on dad, in any event, it would have been the same old thing stew, stew, stew.  I could understand dad’s point of view though, it was easy for him to cook and there was plenty of nourishment in it.  And I certainly couldn't rely on what I get at home, at tea time.  Because of the rationing, dad and I would have a boiled egg once a week.  Dad had no teeth, this never seemed to notice, probably because of his moustache.  It was for this reason, he would insist on a tin loaf, which was a square looking loaf of bread with a thin crust.  Dad would always cut the slices fairly thickly, then cut off the crust off all four sides.  He would then eat the crumb which remained.  When we had our weekly egg, I used to eat the crust that he had cut off to prevent wastage.  I didn't mind this, in fact I used to enjoy eating my eggs in this way.  On other occasions, I would have bread and margarine.  If there was no jam, I would sprinkle a little sugar on it.  Alternatively, I would have toast, But the main problem with that was, we never had a fire, so I would have to toast the bread on the old gas ring, so it wasn't the same.  But all in all, I never found any of this a hardship.  I suppose what I never had I never missed.  In any case I could always rely on stew, there was always that on the go.  It didn't take me long to realise the importance of getting at least one substantial meal a day, although I wasn't very old.  Dinner in the cafe would consist of something like, vegetable pie, onion pudding, boiled potatoes and peas. Followed by something like, plain pudding and syrup or pudding with custard then a cup of tea.  Total cost about one and three pence so whatever I lacked at home, I knew I could survive on that.  My pocket money was ten shillings a week.  By the time I had paid for my dinner and my fares backwards and forward to work, I would still have a little left over, to go to the pictures once a week.
 
All this was working out well, until one day a bloke at work asked if he could come to dinner with us. He was a cripple, quite a bit older than us lads, probably about twenty.  He was badly crippled in as much as he would drag one leg slightly this was bent sideways slightly at the knee.  He was a nice enough bloke, but unfortunately he used to have a sickly smell about him.  He always used to have a piece of cotton wool on his ear, so I gathered that he had an ear complaint.  He was very unfortunate so I didn't suppose he could be blamed for the odour.  He always used to roll his own fags and as they were always rolled very thinly, no doubt for the sake of economy, he would continually have to re-light them. He would eat his dinner leaving the fag in the corner of his mouth, never attempting to take it out, even to drink his tea.  I never knew why he did it or how he managed it, but it put me off.  What with this, plus his slight smell, I decided that I would have to try another cafe.  The little cafe that my mother worked in, had for some time been closed down.  Reluctantly I had no choice but to try the Italian cafe in Mare Street, which wasn't quite the same.
 
I decided that it was time to repair my shoes.  For some time now my shoes had been letting in water.  I waited until the Saturday before doing anything about it, as I didn't get my wages until Friday, and as I worked Saturday mornings I could go straight to Woolworth's when I finished, get my stuff, then catch the 653 trolley bus outside Woolworth's which would take me straight home, door to door.  This way I could save time and fare money.  To take shoes to the cobblers was practically unheard of.  Dad had taught all us kids in our turn, to repair shoes. Woolworth's sold everything that was required to do the job. They would sell leather pieces, about eight inches square, it was just a question of sorting out two decent pieces.  The first thing I did when I got home was to put the leather into a bowl of warm water to soak.  The most important tool needed to do the job was a very sharp knife, so a good sharpen up on the old pumice stone was the next job.  If the shoes had not been repaired before, (which was unlikely in my case) they would have been stitched all round.  So in that case, the next thing to do would be to slice the old sole off by cutting through the stitches, then slice the sole off at an angle at the instep.  The leather would be supple by now.  Slice the leather at an angle at one end to fit into the instep.  It was then ready to nail down and trim off.  This is where the sharp knife was important, to finish the job off properly, brush shoe dye all around the edges, then rub a little melted shoe wax around the sole, filling any gaps.  It was surprising sometimes to see the finish, after repairing shoes three or four times, you could become quite expert.
 
As I was just about finished, Dad came in from his afternoon pint.  I knew by the look on his face that he was going to start reminiscing.  He saw what I was doing and said, "Do you know Stan, what you’re doing reminds me of when I was in France, during the First World War.  Did I ever tell you about the time when a mule stood on my foot?" so I said "I've heard it" he responded "will you bloody well let me finish, alright, so you've heard it, you know it all, you'll learn one day, that's if it’s not too late, and then you'll say after all these years, dad was right.”  After that outburst, I said that I was sorry and asked him to carry on.  He went on, if I hadn't had strong army boots on at that time, I would have been crippled for life, the b******d stood on my foot and just wouldn't move.  He said why do you think the army issue you with strong boots?  When you are on your feet all day, you can't afford to get sores and blisters.  If your feet are in trouble, you're in trouble, it’s the same as when I tell you to eat porridge in the mornings that's what you'll get when you get into the army.  It don't matter if you are out all day on patrol or in action, or whatever.  If you have had a good belly full of oats for breakfast, you won’t starve.  "You'll learn," he used to say, "you'll learn if it’s not too late.  And another thing you want to remember, and that is, all things in moderation.”  Then referring to himself he said, "One or two pints a day is like a medicine, but ten pints a day is bloody poison.  Listen to my words and you won’t go far wrong.”  When he had finished lecturing I thought that he must had an extra pint or two, as he was going on a bit more than usual.  He was right though, after all these years he was right.  If only he were around for me to tell him so, poor old Dad.
 
As there were no washing machines in those days, or detergents or the like, we would take all our weekly wash to what was then known as the bagwash shop.  This was a place where we would take our dirty washing.  The procedure was simple, you put all your soiled laundry in a supplied white linen bag.  Take it to the bagwash shop, where a woman would take a note of the number which was stencilled on the side of the bag, write it in her receipt book, give you a copy of the receipt, then take your laundry bag off you.  In three days time when you went back, the bagwash would be ready on the receipt of one and sixpence.  The little bagwash shop that we used, was just in Bishops Way, not far from the Cambridge Heath Junction.  In the winter or wet weather , it was always a problem drying the washing off.  Our coal fire wasn't in use due to a faulty chimney stack, so all our wet washing had to be dried above the old gas stove.  There was no ironing board or electric iron ,they would have been a luxury, so I would place a folded sheet on the table and do the ironing on that, that's when the flat iron was hot enough. It was always a nuisance having to continually re-heat the iron.  All this was naturally done by me as it couldn't be expected that dad do it.
 
One day in the August we received a letter from one of the three boys.  Inside was a photograph of the three of them together.  It was taken in Naples, or just outside, somehow Charlie had got to hear that Joe and Fred were in the same convalescent camp, he must have heard from either my sister Lily or mum.  It so happened that at that time Charlie was a driver/batman to a major.  This major, or Rusty as Charlie would call him, gave him special permission for a plane trip to Naples.  From there he made his own way to the convalescent camp.  All three boys had a couple of days sight-seeing together in Naples.  Dad and I were naturally overjoyed by the news.  Dad would show the photo to everybody.  When he had finished showing it around, I borrowed it.  I showed it to everyone I knew at work.  I showed it to Bert Overland, who said that it was unusual for all three brothers to meet up in war-time.  Dad even wrote to the Daily Mirror, to no avail, seeing
 
a picture of a sailor, knitting a pair of socks.  Dad’s words were “They wouldn't print the picture of the three boys meeting up but they show a picture of that silly b******d with knitting needles.” 
Then the bad news.  The news that none of us were going to get over.  Another telegram.  Dad and I were standing in the kitchen when he handed me the telegram he had been reading, poor boy, he said.  It read, we regret to inform you that your son F. J. Keyte has been killed in action.  I looked at Dad as he stood there, the look of devastation on his face, that I shall never forget.  I can hear myself saying, but Freddie has only just been wounded maybe they have made a mistake and he's not really dead, but only wounded.  But Dad said, they don't make that kind of mistake boy.  Dad went upstairs as I remember and I just say at the kitchen table and cried.  I can imagine how dad must have felt as I was heartbroken.  I heard dad coming back down the stairs, so I went out into the outside toilet, as I didn't want him to see me so upset.  I knew that I was never going to get over it.  Early in the evening, dad said, if you want me for anything Stan, I will be round the corner in the Dover Castle.  A pub that I had never known Dad to use before.  I sat there indoors, looking around that dump. The most miserable time of my life.
 
I never went to work the next day.  Dad wrote a letter to my sister Lily and told me to take it round.  Ask Lily if she would let mum know the bad news, also ask Lily if she would write to Joe and Charlie.  When I got to Lily's place her mother-in-law answered the door.  She told me that Lily had just gone around the shops, so came up and wait.  The old lady lived on the middle floor of a tenement (sic) house and my sister and her family lived on the top floor, which was the floor above.  When Lily came through the front door, the old lady went down to meet her on the stairs and told her what I had told her about Fred.  I had never seen Lily so upset.  It brought home to me how much everybody thought of Fred.  Being as he was the ailing one of the family in his younger days, he was naturally a bit more fussed over.  Then to see him as he recently was, fit and healthy and always smiling.  It couldn't be fair for something like this to happen.
 
I asked Lily to give me my mother’s address, so as I could let her know but Lily said leave it her as she thought it would be best if the news came from her.  In the evening dad asked me if I was going to work the next day.  If so, he would write a letter giving the reason for me not going to work that day.  The day that followed was not a day to look forward to I was sitting on the bus, on my way to work, feeling miserable, and wondering how I could tell my work mates.  I had previously been proud to tell them about my three brothers in Italy.  I would talk about Fred to the point of boastfulness.  But now poor Fred was gone.  I knew I couldn't face them.  I made sure that I got into work a couple of minutes late, so as not to bump into anybody I knew.  I clocked on about five past eight and hung up my coat.  Bert was not in his office.  I waited my time to go in, when I noticed him checking on the clocking-in cards, when he had done this, he came over to me and asked me why I wasn't in the previous day.  I couldn't answer him, but handed him Dad's letter.  Bert stood there reading the letter not saying a word.  We had an under foreman on our floor named Len.  Shortly after Bert had walked into his office, this Len followed him in, sensing something was wrong.  Within a few minutes, Len came out and came over to me.  He put his hand on my shoulder, then said that they were sorry to get the bad news of Fred.  He then said that Bert told me to take the rest of the day off.  Joe told me later, that after receiving the bad news, he went to see his padre.  The padre and Joe, both went to see Fred's temporary grave.  This would have been in the October nineteen forty four.  Two days later, Charlie who had also got the news, turned up at Joe's camp in a car.  Both Joe and Charlie set off to Fred's grave, only to find that it had been moved.  After some enquiries they eventually found it.  It was in the November that we received another telegram, dad didn't want to open it up.  When at last he did, it said, that Joe had been wounded again.  I said for Christ sake dad, what's gone wrong?  This makes it three times that Joe's been wounded.  A couple of weeks later we heard from Joe.  He said that he had received a splinter wound to his back during shell fire, and that there was nothing to worry about.  The nights were drawing in again by now.  Christmas meant very little to Dad and me.  Being as I was the only one working and on boy’s wages, there was no money about.  Somehow or other I had managed to get a pipe for Dad.  Remembering that the pipe had to have a wide bit, otherwise it would have been no good to him.  We received a Christmas card from Lily and one from my mother.  Mum sent me a pound, asking me to give Dad something out of it, and not to say it was from her as she knew that he wouldn't take it.  But the best Christmas present of all came from a total stranger.  It was from the matron of the hospital where Freddie had died.  It was hand written by her telling us that she was at Fred's bedside when he died.  She told us that Fred had trod on a land mine and that he never would have lived.  She went on to say that he would have felt no pain as he was under ether at the time.  She also said that Fred had passed away with a smile.  That would have been typical of Fred.  We had to consider ourselves very lucky to receive such a letter as this.  I didn't consider it possible for that matron to write to every bereaved parent.  Later on, Dad asked me to take the letter round to my sister Lily and ask her to show it to your mother.
 
 
 
 
As Stan says, the war is beginning to bite and he narrowly escapes serious injury from the blast of a V2 bomb.  In Italy, Joe and Fred are both injured and, as they are convalescing in the same hospital, Uncle Charlie arranges to meet them and they all have a day out in Naples.  My granddad sent a photo of this meeting to the Daily Mirror and his typical crotchety style, when they didn’t print it, he did not let that pass without comment!
 
 
But far worse was to come when Uncle Fred was killed by a land mine.  Uncle Stan had the task of telling my mum (Lily) and despite being very upset; she wanted to pass on the bad news to their mum as she thought it would come better from her.  Out of this tragedy my granddad showed his softer side, when he asked Stan to show the very kind letter sent by the matron to his sister and their mother.
 
 
Stan returns to Marsham for a nostalgia visit, which leads to him receiving a surprise telephone call, and he also rounds off his memoirs in final chapter 8: http://bit.ly/2hpXdmB
 
 
 
 
 
 
 http://bit.ly/2hpXdmB
Growing up in London during the 1950s I well remember my Uncle Stan for his hilarious stories of the East-End and the characters he lived and worked with. Following his death in 1998, Aunt Jean gave me a copy of ‘Us’s & Co’ his account of growing up during the 1930s and his talent, for telling a story, had transferred to the written word. Along with his daughters, Donna and Cheryl, we agree that his memories will be of interest beyond our family.

Eric Baker

One among his nephews and nieces.

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