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Us's & Co. A Family at War

A Family at War

 
In the spring the following year, I suppose that I had been evacuated about eight months by then, another kind of evacuation was taking place.  Everybody seemed to be talking about Dunkirk.  Ted Clarke told me about how we were sending boats across the channel, all shapes and sizes, large and small, just as long as they were sea­worthy, in order to pick up our troops that were stranded on the beaches of France.  They were being gunned and bombed by German aircraft, with no way of escape.  I asked Ted, why we were not using ships, he told me that the big ships couldn't get in near enough because the water was too shallow.  After he began to tell me all about it, I thought to myself that the war must soon be over, and that we had lost the war.  The radio was full of it, I saw it all on the newsreel at the cinema in Aylsham, that's a nearby village.  All this was taking place in May, nineteen forty, however, I was soon to be brought back to reality.  I received a letter from home telling me that my brother Charlie had been called up for war service. I thought to myself if that's the case the war must still be going on.  In the envelope was a postal order from Charlie for two and sixpence. Charlie was about twenty years of age at the time, although as the war went on, the call up age was to be reduced.  When Charlie was a youngster, he was a rare one for weekend camping, Charlie had a BSA pushbike as I remember, and every available opportunity he would pack his knapsack and away he would go.  He would go to a camping site somewhere in Kent.  It seemed to me, in my small mind that this was only an extension of what he had always done, as he had gone to Kent for his army training.  Charlie had joined the Royal West Kent Regiment, somehow I couldn't have imagined him in the infantry, it might seem laughable, but he always seemed to be too reserved.  He was more like the RAF type of person anyway, fate was to change all that as time went on.  It seemed that after Chas had completed his initial training, he helped guard a little emergency airfield in Kent.  Nearby in Tonbridge, there was any encampment of volunteers.  These volunteers were apparently in an unruly state and were getting out of hand. Charlie and a few other squaddies of the Royal West Kent's were taken from their guard duties at the airfield.  They were sent to this encampment in Tonbridge in an effort to assert some kind of order.  A couple of weeks after the detail was completed the complete detail of squaddies were sent before the Sergeant Major.  The Sergeant Major expressed their gratitude for the way his orders were carried out by giving them all the opportunity to transfer to any other regiment of their choosing. This might not sound true, but it was.  Some months earlier before Charlie joined the army, one of his old camping mates, a bloke named Dicky Dunn had joined the Royal Army Service Corps.  He had mentioned to Charlie, that when you join the army, I would advise you to join the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) it’s an easier life, and no foot slogging. With this in mind, Charlie requested the Royal Army Service Corps. Charlie went from there to Aldershot in Hampshire to join his new regiment the RASC.  So an infantryman he wasn't to be after all.  After he was there a few weeks, Charlie applied to become a driver, not being able to drive, he was allowed to take up driving lessons.  He passed his driving test in no time, and became a driver.  Charlie's old camping mate, Dickey Dunn, did him a real favour, when he had advised to get into the RASC.  No doubt, for Charlie, this was a very eventful period.  But during that same period of time, it was even more eventful for some others.  A period of time that was to go down in history.  It was the seventh of September nineteen forty, the day the Battle of Britain began.
 
Hitler had ordered his Air Marshall Goring to bomb the life out of London.  After the first devastating attack on that Saturday afternoon, the people of London didn't know what had hit them.  Then before they had any chance to recover there was another murderous attack that took place, shortly after in the evening.  The bombing was so extensive, that even in Marsham, over a hundred miles away, there was a red glow in the sky brought on by the fires.  Ted Clarke was out in the garden at the time.  He shouted to Queenie to come out and see this. Mrs Clarke and I rushed outside into the garden, the sky was aglow.  I was thinking that it must be a big fire somewhere, maybe in Norwich.  I asked Ted what he thought it was, and he agreed what I was thinking. I noticed he was mumbling something to Queenie, as we went indoors.  He no doubt had guessed the true reason, but what he was saying was not for my ears.  The next door neighbours were the Chapman family.  Mrs Chapman would come round every single day, except Sundays she was a creature of habit.  Mrs Chapman would knock on the door then say "it’s only me Queenie."  She was a woman about fifty six.  She had lank mousy coloured hair, which she would continuously tuck behind her ears.  Her teeth were uneven and discoloured she had a couple missing at the bottom, which made her lisp slightly.  Her bottom lip would drop to one side which invariably had a fag resting in it.  Mrs Chapman was a slightly built woman and had a large hump to one side of her back.  After waiting for Mrs Clarke to say come in, she would come in, stand half facing the front room window with the knuckle of one hand resting on her hip.  She would always position herself in the same position, so as to keep one eye on the lane, where she stood she was able to see straight up the lane.  Every so often she would tuck here lank hair behind her ear, while her eyes were searching for any movement in the lane.  If anyone came in view, she would break off her conversation and say something for example like: "’ees late bringing in cow s’arnoon Queenie", or "Oh there's ole Mrs so and so", or "there goes Obediah, ee don't look at all well these days do ee Queenie?”  She would never sit down, just stand there, for that reason.  Then there was her husband, she would refer to him as mister Chapman.  Mr Chapman, unlike his wife, kept himself to himself, whenever I did see him, it would be in his garden, he was confined to a wheelchair, I always noticed he had large blackheads round his eyes, a man aged about sixty.  Then there was the eldest child, he was a bloke about seventeen called Fats for what reason I wouldn't know, he certainly wasn't fat.  He was later to be killed in the RAF.  The next eldest was Barbara, referred to by mum as our Babs.  Lastly, there was Bob.  He turned out to be a good friend of mine, he seemed to know everything that went on in the village, and everybody's name.  A proper busy lad, a bit like his mum in that respect, never a dull moment and good to have as a friend.
 
Dad wrote to Mrs Clarke and asked her if it was alright for Fred and him to come down to see me.  It was October 1940.  They arranged to come down on a Sunday as Fred used to work week-days and Saturday mornings.  I waited at the bus stop for them at an agreed time, but they wasn't on that bus.  So it meant going back to the bus stop again, otherwise it would have meant me waiting there two hours, for the next bus. I got back to the bus stop a bit early so as not to miss them, as they would not know the way to our place.  About half an hour later, the bus pulled up.  Only two people got off and that was dad and Fred.  I didn't recognise dad at first, as I was expecting to see a bowler hat. It was the first time that I had ever seen dad wearing a cap.  I asked him why that was, and he said that he knew it would be cold out here in the country.  As we made our way down the lane, they both complained about all the mud and cow's muck.  I said to dad, "Now you know why I wanted the rubber boots.”  I asked why mum didn't come down as well, but dad said mum was too busy at work, but had sent some comics.  I still wasn't aware at that time that mum had left home.  I introduced dad and Fred to Mr and Mrs Clarke.  They had tea with us, and shortly after, they had to leave for home.  The main thing that came out of the visit is I remember becoming very homesick.  I was now very anxious to get back home to the family.
 
Christmas had come and gone, we were in the winter of nineteen forty one and I was looking forward to my thirteenth birthday.  I remember thinking that I would be thirteen on the thirteenth which was supposed to mean unlucky for some.  One day at school we were asked by the Woman's Voluntary Service (WVS) to take a form back to our foster parents, for them to tick off any item of clothing that we might need and to hand them back in school the next day.  The following day at school the WVS was there.  They had opened up the trestles and had laid out.  bundles of clothing.  As our individual names were called, so we handed in our lists.  Mine was ticked suit and a warm hat, there wasn’t any suits so I had to settle for a pair of trousers, a blazer and a black, lined waterproof helmet with a peak, the strap fastened under the chin with a press stud.  It seemed that there was an organisation called Bundles for Britain.  They collected clothing from all over the place even as far away as America.  Most items were second-hand but everything had been repaired, altered, patched up and processed, ready for wear.  The trousers that I got, I am sure, had been army breeches or land army breeches cut down and made to look like short trousers.  They were a good fit, but the only thing was that where they used to be breeches they bowed out at the side seams, I hadn't noticed that at the time, not that it would have made any difference, because nobody was getting any choice anyway, the policy was, if it fits wear it.  When it came to the jacket, the nearest thing they could come up with, was a blazer. This blazer was a horrible colour, purple with pink braid edges.  I said I didn't like the colour but the lady took no notice about that, and told me that it was a lovely fit.  So that was me fixed up apparently, the helmet was a god-send, it kept all the rain, sleet, and snow out it served a good purpose.  Many a time I tried to get out of wearing those cut down breeches. Mrs Clarke said that they were nice and warm, and that the side seam didn't notice very much.  In any case, they were the only trousers I had apart from my Sunday trousers.  One day, fate took a hand, we were climbing trees, when I lost my grip.  I fell and ripped my trousers pretty badly, although I was only scratched and grazed, my trousers were a write off. That was the last I saw of them, thank God.  I was dreading the summer coming round as I knew that I would have to wear my blazer, I had no new jacket for Sundays, but still I might have grown out of it by then. There was another incident of falling out of trees, but this turned out to be a tragedy.  One of the boys that went climbing with us, fell out of a tree, he fell straight down, legs apart, and landed onto a pointed wire fence support stake, it went straight into his body.  The poor boy died before he reached hospital.  From then on, we were all under orders, no more tree climbing.
 
We were now in nineteen forty one, about springtime, I think.  I remember the weather was fine, so I was thinking about getting a push bike.  When I mentioned this to Mrs Clarke she said that she would ask around the village, to see if anybody had one to sell.  In the meantime she advised me to try to get a spare time job to pay for it.  A bike was essential in a way, on account of the fact that everywhere that you wanted to go were always far distances apart.  Buses ran every two hours, besides everybody else in the village seemed to ride a bike.  When the postman called one morning, he said that he thought that Mrs Clutterbuck, that was one of the wealthy people in the village, might by the person to ask about a spare time job, anyway he said he would enquire.  In the meantime Mrs Chapman, next door, said that as her eldest boy was joining the RAF.  I would be able to borrow his bike until he came home, after the war ended.  A couple of days later, when the postman arrived, he told me that I should go along to see a friend of Mrs Clutterbuck, she lived at the far end of the village.  Mrs Kidd lived in a large bungalow that her husband had died in some years earlier. It was called Three Ways.  Mrs Kidd must have been about seventy years of age.  She had a daughter who I had seen on one occasion, but she lived away, I understood that she was an officer in the Auxiliary Training Service (ATS).  Anyway I got the job.  I had to go on Mondays and Fridays, for two hours each time.  I did odd jobs like, sweeping the path, rolling the lawn or weeding and such like.  For that I used to get five shillings, tea and home-made cakes thrown in.  I am sure that I only got the job out of pity as there really wasn't much for me to do.  She already had a gardener anyway.  When I think back, I am almost sure that she was pleased with the company.  Each Sunday morning, all us evacuees had to meet on the village green.  Miss Robins, or Polly Robins as us kids used to call her, would check us out before attending church. I noticed that Mr and Mrs McCarthy never used to attend.  On one such morning, Miss Robins asked, whether any of us would like to be confirmed?  Nobody volunteered, probably for the same reason that I didn't, as I never knew what she meant by being confirmed.  She explained that once confirmed, we would have to attend communion every fourth Sunday, and as wego to church every week anyway, there would be no extra effort on our part.  If anybody was interested, they would get time off from school to attend confirmation classes, then when these classes ended they would get tea and cakes in the vicarage.  Well not understanding the religious commitment, but being tempted by the offer I stuck my hand up.  Me and two other kids, used to attend these classes.  After being confirmed, I was told that on the following Sunday I must attend Holy Communion at Marsham All Saints Church.  It is worth mentioning that Marsham All Saints Church was of a beautiful design construction dating back to the fourteenth century.  Not being quite sure of what to expect, I was becoming quite nervous over the forthcoming event.  On the Saturday evening before, Mrs Clarke laid out my clean shirt and blazer, also the shoes that dad had sent me.  For a start, I didn't like the shoes, they felt a bit loose.  I asked Mrs Clarke, whether they looked like girl’s shoes, but she said no.  I had always been fussy about shoes, and wasn't feeling happy about wearing them.  I had no other decent shoes, so what could I do anyway.  I tried on the blazer, in order to have a little dress rehearsal, and it looked terrible.  All I could say, was it was still a good fit.  I again asked Mrs Clarke if she thought that it might be a girl’s blazer, she laughed and said that I always imagine things.  I wasn't convinced and was still conscious of the purple colour and pink braiding.  I wasn't allowed to ride my bike on Sundays, so it meant walking to church.  I remember looking back down the lane, Mr and Mrs Clarke, gave me a wave.  Being as the shoes were slightly higher at the front than they should have been, it made walking a bit uncomfortable.  It was only as I was entering the church, that I discovered that my blazer did up opposite to the other boy’s jackets.  I felt myself go bright red with embarrassment.  As usual, the church was almost full and I was sitting there feeling very uneasy.  After the vicar requested the congregation to be seated, he beckoned us forward to the altar, to take the bread and wine.  Well, what with the blazer and those loose fitting built up shoes, I nearly died of embarrassment.  I felt I must have stood out like a bloody sore thumb.  As soon as the service was over, I was out of that church like a bat out of hell and off came the blazer, in spite of the fact that it had started to rain.  Even to this day, I almost blush at the thought of it, and of how embarrassed I was.  I wonder maybe, that Mr and Mrs Clarke had a quiet snigger as I walked out of the door that Sunday morning.  During the following week, just to compensate so it seems, I was in for a pleasant surprise.  I got home as usual from morning school to see Mrs Clarke standing by the cottage gate.  She told me that when you go indoors you will be in for a surprise.  Wondering what it might be, I couldn't wait to go indoors.  I opened the door, my brother Charlie was sitting at the table.  It was the first time that I had ever seen him in uniform.  He wore an army peak cap, which was the usual dress for Royal Army Service Corp (RASC) drivers.  I must have been the happiest youngster in the village at that particular time.  I showed Charlie off to my mates and the Chapman family.  He also met Ted, as he came home from work.  Charlie had to go back in the early evening, so I went up the lane with him to the bus stop, to see him off.  As I walked beside him, I was thinking how big he was, I felt like a midget trying to keep up with him.  I was wondering again whether I was ever going to grow.  Charlie must have been well over six foot tall, he no doubt took after my mother.  On the other hand, my father was only about five feet four, so I was worried that I might take after him, whenever I measured, I was always four foot nine.
 
There was talk at the time about us losing the war in Libya.  There were fierce battles going on out there.  Rommel the German Field Marshall seemed to be doing as he liked with us.  After seeing newsreels of desert warfare, whenever I went to the pictures, I was always intrigued.  I even would stay behind after I had seen the main film, just to see the newsreel over again.  We had a General Auchinleck in charge of our forces out there in Tobruk.  The German Field Marshall Rommel was in command of the German Panzer Division, and seemed to be having things all his own way and walking all over us.  Something happened about then, in the spring that I remember vividly.  The papers said that General Montgomery was going out to Tobruk to replace General Auchinleck.  From then on it seemed that the tables were turned.  Whenever I saw the newsreel, it seemed we had Rommel on the run.  The tide was turning, Christmas was over, and I was beginning to count the days.
 
Typical of my uncle he relates how the embarrassment caused by his shoes and blazer, stood out amongst everything else that was going on.  Well, wouldn’t you be embarrassed too!?  Next, we gain a fascinating insight into how life carried on, despite everything, in chapter 4:  http://bit.ly/2yuSrZ2
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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